Lightweight Backpacking & Camping: A Field Guide to Wilderness Equipment, Technique, and Style

Book Info

Lightweight Backpacking and Camping: A Field Guide to Wilderness Hiking Equipment, Technique, and Style, by Jordan-R (Ed.), Beartooth Mountain Press (2005). 436 pp.

Where to Buy

Lightweight Backpacking & Camping is also distributed to bookstores and outdoor retailers by Wilderness Press and AlpenBooks.

Editor: Ryan Jordan

Managing Editors: Alan Dixon and Vic Lipsey

Contributing Authors: Ryan Jordan, George Cole, Alan Dixon, Lee Van Horn, Rick Dreher, Dave Schultz, Bill Thorneloe, Carol Crooker, Glen Van Peski, Alison Simon, Stephanie Jordan, and Ellen Zaslaw.

LIGHTWEIGHT BACKPACKING AND CAMPING offers new insight into gear selection and techniques that can be used to reduce pack weight and decrease the margin of risk that occurs by taking less weight in the backcountry.

This book is an ideal primer for the lightweight backpacking student who desires to build a solid foundation of knowledge about equipment and skills.

Preface, by Glen Van Peski, Founder, Gossamer Gear
Introduction, by Ryan Jordan, Publisher, Backpacking Light Magazine

Part 1: The Art and Science of Walking

Chapter 1: Footwear, by Lee Van Horn
Chapter 2: Backpacks, by Ryan Jordan
Chapter 3: Pack Weight, by George Cole
Chapter 4: Navigation – Lightweight Principles and Equipment, by George Cole

Part 2: Protection from the Elements

Chapter 5: Thermoregulation, by Ryan Jordan
Chapter 6: Clothing, by Alan Dixon
Chapter 7: The Sleep System, by Lee Van Horn
Chapter 8: Shelter, by Rick Dreher

Part 3: Eating, Drinking, and Hygiene

Chapter 9: Hydration, by George Cole
Chapter 10: Trail Food, Backcountry Cooking, and Nutrition, Dave Schultz, Lee Van Horn, and Ryan Jordan
Chapter 11: Hygiene, by George Cole and Ryan Jordan

Part 4: First Aid and Emergency Preparedness

Chapter 12: Risk Management, by George Cole
Chapter 13: First Aid, by Dave Schultz and Ryan Jordan

Part 5: Proven Lightweight Solutions

Chapter 14: Advanced Tarp Camping Techniques for Inclement Conditions, by Ryan Jordan
Chapter 15: Superultralight – Breaking the Five-Pound Barrier, by Ryan Jordan
Chapter 16: Hiking Efficiency – A Day in the Life of an Ultralight Hiker, by Ryan Jordan
Chapter 17: Lightweight Backpacking with Young Children, by Stephanie and Ryan Jordan
Chapter 18: Lightweight Backpacking for Couples, by Alison Simon and Alan Dixon
Chapter 19: Face-Off – First Aid and Emergency Gear, by Bill Thorneloe, David Schultz, and Ryan Jordan
Chapter 20: Especially for Women – by Ellen Zaslaw

Part 5: Appendices

A: Gear Lists
B: Gear Manufacturers
C: Resources – Magazines, Books, and Websites

Some hikers, upon converting to the ultralight style of backpacking, become rabid proselytizers for the cause, convinced that everyone needs to get their base pack weight below 10 pounds to avoid the eternal damnation of 65-pound packs. Though it may border on blasphemy—since a good chunk of my recent life has been devoted to creating ultralight gear and getting it into the hands of like-minded enthusiasts—I’m not convinced that everyone needs a small base pack weight. If you are young, in great physical shape, your trips consist entirely of relatively short distances into the backcountry to establish base camps for day trips, and you already own a bunch of traditional backpacking gear, you can probably save yourself the trouble of reading this book.

Good for the Body

For the rest of you, there are many benefits to going light. The most obvious is perhaps the physical benefit. For anyone who is older than 25 (or younger than 16!), whose career and rest of life doesn’t leave as much time as they would like to work out, who has an old sports/war injury, who has some kind of disability (any part of the body that doesn’t work as well as the norm), who has limited vacation time in which to recreate, lightening your pack weight will be a blessing. Your body will thank you for carrying a lighter pack. A lighter pack will

  • Be easier on your joints and muscles
  • Help prevent aggravating old injuries
  • Allow you to maintain your outdoor activities to a ripe old age

I have received many excited letters from graying outdoor enthusiasts who had resigned themselves to giving up backpacking for good, only to find out that with ultralight gear and techniques they were once again able to spend time in the backcountry that they loved.

A lighter pack allows longer daily travel distances, putting more of the backcountry within reach. Now with a three-day weekend you can see countryside that would have required a week off of work using traditional backpacking techniques. As you get further into the backcountry, you get to enjoy less crowded trails and more solitude. The ability to travel further can extend your backpacking into the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall, where previously the shorter days were an impediment to any serious trip.

Good for the Environment

Besides having less impact on your limbs and ligaments, a lighter load can result in a reduced impact on the backcountry. Many ultralighters, freed from the slavish adherence to short grinds between established campsites, use their ability for enhanced distances and greater flexibility to practice stealth camping. Adopting proper “Leave No Trace” ethics, the ultralighter can reduce their impact on the backcountry. They don’t need to camp near water like everyone else. Their lighter loads allow them to enjoy dinner near the water and hike on a few miles, avoiding overuse of the waterside sites and opening up some new pristine vistas from their stealth site. To the extent that ultralight techniques allow more people to enjoy the backcountry, this can foster a greater base of ownership and involvement in preserving that backcountry, donating time and resources to protect it.

Good for the Mind

Besides keeping your body active later in life, going light helps keep your mind active and healthy. Techniques and knowledge are a big part of lightening your pack weight. Often you rely on your experience to reduce the amount of gear you carry. Some ultralight gear requires a little more thought to use than the standard issue stuff.

For instance, a nice 4-pound tent is fairly easy to set up just about anywhere. But if you are carrying an 8-ounce tarp, you will need to be more clever about where you camp and you will need to know some techniques to fashion the tarp into a worthy shelter. Lightening your load engages your mind in your backcountry adventure. This engagement starts before the trip, as you gather information, analyze options, and refine gear lists. As you educate yourself online and through books such as this, you help to keep the brain cells active. Studies have shown that is integral to a long and healthy life.

Good for Simplicity

Going light helps to simplify your life. Through the tenets of multiple-use items and taking less gear, the number of items in your pack drops with the overall weight. Less gear to pack means it’s easier to get out. In this day and age of busy careers, multiple kid activities, and overlapping commitments, having a simple kit may make the difference of you getting out on a trip or not. Even if you haven’t planned anything, when you’re prepared and flexible there will be times you can jump into a trip when an original participant cancels at the last minute.

Besides the obvious benefit of less weight, having less gear is a freeing experience in that you have less stuff to keep track of on the trail. (On the flip side, with your gear honed down to a minimum, if you lose something, it was probably something that you really needed.)

Good for Relationships

One of the more esoteric benefits of going light is the ability to build relationships with the people who design and make your gear. It is unlikely that the average hiker will be able to pick up the phone and easily get hold of a major manufacturer’s equipment designer for a gear discussion. But since much of the cutting-edge ultralight gear being produced is coming out of cottage manufacturers, you get the opportunity to ask detailed questions of the people making the equipment. In many cases, you have real input into the design of the next generation of ultralight backpacking gear. Many ultralight products on the market today bear the mark of individual enthusiasts who asked for tweaks to suit their own needs. If you value the diversity of small business, going lighter provides you ample opportunity to support smaller shops.

Good for More

Sometimes the benefits of going light aren’t so much that you get that light, but that you make room for your passion. I have photographer friends that will leave home a stove and subsist on cold mashed potatoes so that they can make room for 10 pounds of camera gear. Similarly, climbers who carry ample racks of hardware to ply their craft benefit from going light on everything else.

Since the journey to lightness is largely a cerebral one, where does one start? Self-education is critical to avoid getting in a situation where you didn’t bring enough gear to be safe for your experience level. Your journey should be one of baby steps, learning and trying a couple of new things on each trip, finding what works for you and what doesn’t. There are many online email lists that are a great resource. Basically, any list having to do with long hikes—such as the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, or Appalachian Trail—will have a following of experienced ultralighters. There are beginning to be significant books with the latest information on ultralight backpacking, like the book you are holding now. If you have not already read it, I highly recommend the book Lightweight Backpacking 101, also published by Beartooth Mountain Press. So dive in and start your own journey to lightness!

Founder, Gossamer Gear

Lightweight backpacking is not about sacrificing comfort, safety, or a good time. It’s not some insane practice of walking in marathon racing shorts, foraging for roots, and shivering the nights away under a tarp the size of a handkerchief. Nor is lightweight backpacking about carrying gear whose seams explode on you when you sneeze. And it’s certainly not about having the best, most expensive gear money can buy. In fact, often, lightweight backpacking is quite the opposite of that.

Lightweight backpacking is about doing more with less. On the surface, doing more with less implies that you can go farther, faster, and longer in more safety and comfort with a light pack than with a heavy pack. However, it’s a lot deeper than that. A light pack isn’t enough.

If you put a light pack full of the latest and greatest lightweight gear on an inexperienced hiker and bid him bon voyage into the wilderness, he may very well enjoy the experience. However, if he does not understand the limitations, utility, and function of lightweight gear, he could come back thoroughly frustrated and never set foot into the wilderness again with a pack that weighs less than forty pounds. Worse, he may never return to backpacking. Even worse yet, he could get injured or even die because of his lack of knowledge and experience using lightweight gear in hostile environmental conditions.

So, lightweight backpacking is about technique as much as it’s about the gear. In fact, proper technique is so important for increasing your safety with a lightweight kit that the two must go hand in hand – solid backcountry skills allow you to take lighter gear. Virtually anyone can carry a four season tent, heavy synthetic sleeping bag, plenty of extra food and clothing, a GPS, and satellite or cellular communications devices, and survive a mainstream wilderness experience. But if you are going to go light, you must do so with competency: lightweight gear does not replace a lack of experience or skill.

The goals of this book are simple:

  1. To justify the benefits of lightweight backpacking.
  2. To present the reader with several options in technique and gear.
  3. To empower the reader with knowledge to go out on her own.


Part 1 of this volume builds the foundation to justify the benefits of lightweight backpacking by discussing concepts that present the “Art and Science of Walking”. It begins appropriately with the category of equipment that is arguably more important that any piece of gear or apparel a lightweight backpacker will use: footwear. Lee Van Horn’s treatise on footwear (Chapter 1) includes a comprehensive discussion of lightweight backpacking shoes. Simply put, shoes have such a profound impact on the lightweight backpacking experience because (1) the type of footwear you are able to wear depends in large part on the weight of the pack, and (2) the type of footwear you choose governs the transfer of energy and shock to the rest of your lower torso and spinal joints. Since this book’s manuscript was finalized, I’ve been diving into research about ultralight footwear, and experimenting with shoes lighter than anything the market has previously seen. I’ve been strengthening my feet, hiking in shoes with less support that are more akin to slippers than hiking shoes, and have been making some dramatic discoveries. In particular, that with proper conditioning, the natural features of the feet (as long as the arch is supported and the heel pad retains its shape for shock absorption) are ideally suited for transferring energy to the rest of your body, and I’m finding that I can walk longer distances in less supportive footwear – with a light pack – than I’ve ever been able to do before. Ten years ago, a 30 mile day of backpacking was relatively uncommon except among the elite. Now, those kinds of distances are accessible to those carrying lightweight backpacks and wearing the proper footwear.

Chapter 2, I discuss what may be the most sought after piece of equipment by gear junkies: the backpack. However, rather than be a survey of lightweight backpacks, this chapter addresses the a backpack impacts the biomechanics of the body and how the lightweight backpacker can capitalize on certain features of backpack design and packing to get the most out of their packing system. Types of backpacks are discussed, including a regurgitation of the age old “ultralight” debate of frame vs. frameless backpacks, with a justification based on load stability and moment concept physics that indicate why in most circumstances, an internal frame pack will almost always outperform a frameless pack, in spite of the extra weight of the frame – in theory at least!

In Chapter 3, George Cole integrates the concepts presented in Chapters 1 and 2 into a chapter that presents the definitive conclusions that justify the benefits of lightweight backpacking from the physical, biomechanical, and physiological standpoint of walking long distances over uneven terrain. Nowhere else has this subject been treated in the ways that we’ve presented in Chapters 1-3 of this book, and although the reading can be difficult at times (it may actually require you to think about and study the concepts, so don’t expect a lazy read, especially in Chapters 2 and 3), it will empower you with the foundation principles that show why lightweight backpacking feels good! Appropriately, this section on walking closes with a discussion of navigation. Lighter in concept and requiring less studiousness than the three previous chapters, Chapter 4 discusses the core tools that make for efficient navigation and why and how lightweight backpackers can both choose and use those tools to the best of their advantages. George’s navigation presentation in this chapter is not meant to be a comprehensive primer on navigation tools and techniques. With the advancement of GPS technology and computerized custom mapmaking tools, we’ll undoubtedly see some incredible progress in this field in the coming years. For the lightweight backpacker, I hope that you take home these messages after reading Chapter 4: (1) that navigation is an essential skill to improve your speed and accuracy in wilderness travel, and (2) that an understanding of mapreading will allow you to plan trips more effectively so you take less gear. Many a time I’ve sat down and meditated over a planned wilderness route on a detailed topographical map and identified the best potential campsites, cross country routes, and bailout options that allow me to lighten my pack.


Part 2 presents a detailed discussion of how to deal with adverse environmental conditions (specifically: cold, heat, wind, rain, snow, and insects) in “Protection from the Elements.” To understand how stuff works and why you might select specific components of clothing, sleep, and shelter systems, this section opens up with a basic and simple discussion of thermoregulation, custom tailored for the needs of an ultralight backpacker (Chapter 5). In Chapter 6, Product Review Director Alan Dixon discusses lightweight clothing systems, with specific attention paid to base layers, wind shirts, high loft insulating garments, and rainwear. The beginning lightweight backpacker will really appreciate Alan’s presentation of different system weights: there are magnificent advantages to be gained by reducing both the weight and volume of your clothing systems, and intelligent decisions can be mode so that you don’t sacrifice warmth or protection when the storm does come. Lee Van Horn presents an overview of sleep systems (sleeping bags, mattresses, and bivy sacks) from the most basic fundamentals of design (Chapter 7), so the lightweight backpacker understands the limitations of today’s cutting edge sleep systems (including so-called variable girth and top bags) and how best to integrate them into their own gear kits.

Chapter 8 introduces Section Editor Rick Dreher with a lighthearted discussion of shelter systems. This chapter is structured a little differently from those in other books, which seem to plagiarize the same section headings from each other: “Tents”, “Tarps”, and “Other Types of Shelters”. Rick takes a different approach, building a foundation of shelter system principles, from design considerations and environmental context (“warm and dry vs. cold and wet”) to moisture control issues and shelter choices. And, unlike other books, we bring tarps smack dab into the forefront of other choices, rather than as a casual afterthought, and provide you with sound information on tarp selection, pitching, and considerations for selecting tarps vs. other types of shelters (see also Chapter 14: Advanced Tarp Camping Techniques).


If you know why you need to go light, and how to do it in the face of inclement conditions, you are most of the way there en route to becoming a lightweight backpacker. And so, instead of comprehensive discussions of the neat little gadgetry that makes this business so much fun, we dive into the third most important aspect of maximizing your performance on the trail: hydration and nutrition (Part 3). In Chapter 9, George returns with a great introduction to lightweight hydration options, where we’ve simply done away with the de facto standard of water treatment: the unfortunately ubiquitious pump style water filter. I will grant that there may still be situations where such filters may be warranted, but most of the authors of this volume have enjoyed wilderness waters from every corner of the world, and pump style water filters have long since been relegated to our gear museums (our spouses call these “closets”, “basements”, or “attics”). Not only does George discuss water treatment gear and supplies, but presents considerations for creating effective and efficient hydration strategies while on the trail (see also Chapter 16: Hiking Efficiency).

Chapter 10 synthesizes the thoughts of Lee, myself, and Dave Schultz in “Trail Food, Backcountry Cooking, and Nutrition”. It is in this chapter that we not only discuss concepts like caloric efficiency and menu planning but also more practical considerations of lightweight hikers, including packing food for minimum volume and creating meals that are utterly simple to prepare while remaining tasty and nutritious. Finally, and appropriately, we close the chapter with a discussion of both lightweight and ultralight cooking systems, as well as bear bagging techniques. In this chapter, more than any other perhaps, we wholeheartedly denounce the 1960s NOLS-esque nutrition theology that has become like religion to some and has infectiously permeated backpacking literature for four decades. I expect more advances in backpacking food, nutrition, meal preparation, and stove performance to come down the pike in the coming years. Combine all of this with light packs and an understanding of how to hike (walk) efficiently (using less calories to travel farther distances), and we have a recipe for plenty of new concepts in wilderness travel that are more consistent with the lightweight philosophy. Taking care of your body is not just about keeping it well fed and hydrated. Particularly on long distance hikes, hygiene is an important consideration as well, and is presented in Chapter 11 by George and myself, with some womanly interjection for those subjects in which we’re less…experienced…by Ellen Zaslaw. Skin, feet, teeth, toilet, low impact camping, and insect protection – it’s all here, and in the right amount of depth to allow the Linuses among you to plow through it quickly while still picking up some nuggets of knowledge that we’ll all appreciate when we meet you on the trail.


By now, you will have understood the basic foundation systems of lightweight backpacking: walking/navigation/packing systems, clothing/sleep/shelter systems, and hydration/nutrition systems. An in-depth survey of the lightweight backpacking gear market will help you reduce your pack weight to remarkable levels. Many today are now practicing a “Superultralight” style of backpacking whereby their base pack weights without food and water are less than five pounds. The lunatic fringe? Perhaps, but the perceived reality for the uninformed public and mass media is that people carrying light packs are fools – walking time bombs waiting for a search and rescue Hasty crew to come bail them out when the weather turns south. Of course, all of this is utter hogwash. In my lightweight backpacking seminars to search and rescue agencies all over the country, an overwhelming majority of them indicated that most calls for rescues to hikers and backpackers were to those who were either inexperienced, or were in trouble because they had overly heavy packs, or both.

However, that does not mean that we, as lightweight backpackers, must ignore the real risks that come with leaving that extra change of clothing at home or electing to use a tarp rather than a tent when traveling to the mountains.

Consequently, Part 4 deals very purposefully with two important subjects that must not be ignored by any wilderness traveler, but especially, must remain in the forefronts of minds of lightweight backpackers: First Aid and Emergency Preparedness.

In Chapter 12, Risk Management, George presents a basic plan of risk management useful for any backpackers. I encourage you to read this chapter over and over until risk management becomes a core ethic for pre-trip planning. You must always understand the change in risk associated with leaving, or taking, any piece of gear, altering your route, going solo vs. with companions. As important, but perhaps the least understood aspect of risk management among lightweight backpackers, is to design and know your bailout options, and use them if you have to. Heroes don’t die trying to be heroes while solo backpacking.

Dave and I address First Aid in Chapter 13, and instead of discussing those first aid situations that could happen to you, we present those that normally do, with lightweight solutions for dealing with them. Dave and I have a long history of bantering back and forth about first aid gear (see Chapter 19: Face-Off, First Aid and Emergency Gear), but we agree on the same core principles: take the gear you need for the emergencies you expect to encounter, and capitalize on your skill, knowledge, and ability to innovate when unexpected situations arise.


By the end of Part 4, you will be ready to hit the trail, rejuvenated and energized with a serious foundation of lightweight backpacking principles! Now grab your gear and do it. No book, no magazine, no Website, can ever hope to replace actual experience. And don’t be afraid to try new things and gain new experiences in low risk environments: camp in the backyard when a winter storm warning is issued so you know how your lightweight shelter can handle the wind. Take a walk in shorts, t-shirt, wind shirt, and running shoes on a local trail at night when it’s pouring down rain (just keep the keys to the car handy) so you know how your body will react to your clothing system. And, don’t ignore the benefit of “practicing” lightweight backpacking on overnight trips close to home. Make it easy on your family and job, and leave after dinner, and be back home or to work by lunch the next day. “Just do it” so the slogan says, and become your own expert at lightweight backpacking.


Part 5 closes the book with some of the classic articles from Backpacking Light Magazine originally published on the Website. We’ve selected those that will withstand the test of time and thus warrant inclusion in a book format, to be enjoyed for years to come. In addition, we’ve tried to select those that will get your thought processes going and possibly invoke some controversy, and cater to more advanced lightweight backpackers (see Chapter 14: Advanced Tarp Camping Techniques for Inclement Conditions, Chapter 15: Superultralight, Breaking the Five Pound Barrier, Chapter 16: Hiking Efficiency, A Day in the Life of an Ultralight Hiker, and Chapter 19: Face-Off, First Aid and Emergency Gear).

In addition, I’ve included two chapters in Part 5 that get to the core of what any activity is about: relationships. I love solo hiking and its benefits: remote solitude provides an avenue for introspection and relationship with God that is extremely difficult to procure in today’s hectic society. But a solo life is a lonely life, and lightweight backpacking opens up new avenues for sharing the wilderness with your family. To that end, please enjoy Chapters 17 (Lightweight Backpacking with Young Children) and 19 (Lightweight Backpacking for Couples) and show others the fruits and fun of going light.

Finally, it’s no great surprise that lightweight backpacking is appealing to those that don’t have the strength of an elite mountaineer, which of course, includes most of us, but especially caters to youth, seniors, and women. To that end, we’ve included a fantastic discussion of lightweight backpacking in the context of women’s issues (Chapter 20) by Ellen Zaslaw. Read it and find out how a water pistol or crushed aspirin might find their way onto a woman’s gear list.


My own passion for lightweight backpacking was fueled by seeing how far a thirteen-year-old Boy Scout could walk if I cut his pack weight in half – from more than forty to less than twenty pounds. I figured he could walk twice as far. I was wrong. He could walk three times the distance. In 1991, I validated the lightweight approach with a group of six High Adventure Boy Scouts aged 13 to 17. When I told them we were going ultralight, they balked. When I told them I wanted us all to walk 100 miles in 4.5 days, and that nobody in the Scouting community has ever done this before, they were turbocharged. We walked out of Camp Parsons with five days of food and no Scout was carrying more than 17 pounds of gear and food. Five days later, we arrived back in Camp after a 112 mile trek and the boys had become young men – not mules. They experienced a sense of adventure and exploration that no one carrying a heavy pack could have ever appreciated.

Daily, I am awed and pleased by the fire that lights up in the heart of someone when they realize they can cut their pack weight in half simply by thinking a little differently about what they want from a wilderness experience. To see light packs, smiling faces, and warm hearts on seventy year old hikers in the Tetons and seven year old first graders on the Appalachian Trail: those are the real rewards for me!

Godspeed and Go Light,

Publisher, Backpacking Light Magazine
Bozeman, Montana