The 5 ‘Please Don’ts’ of Lightweight Backpacking for Beginners – Mistakes to Avoid

Posted by Kale Klontz on

So, here you are. You drank the Kool-Aid so to speak and are convinced that lightweight backpacking is the way to go. Well, congratulations because you are right! Going light on the trail takes away unnecessary aches and pains and trades them in for more enjoyment and fun. But only if you do it right.

Too many of us have learned the hard way when just starting out. The good news is that because we did all the dirty work for you, you don’t have to. (Lucky!) So let’s jump right in and get you educated so that you can avoid the all too common lightweight backpacking rookie mistakes.

The big three: tent, pack, and sleeping bag

  1. Please don’t buy a lightweight backpack…but continue to carry heavy gear.

Countless lightweight packs forever reside in the backs of the storage closets or in dank, forgotten corners of unfinished basements after just one trip. Why? Well, allow us to fill you in. Many people start off on the right foot with the best of intentions when they purchase a lightweight pack. Where they fall short is stopping right there. Rather than lightening up their entire pack weight, they simply take their new lightweight pack and stuff it full to the brim with everything they used to carry. Sorry folks, but that just isn’t going to work. A lightweight pack is not designed to carry that much weight and when it does, it is exceedingly uncomfortable. We all know where discomfort leads; straight to the storage closest and basement corners of the world.

To save your new lightweight pack from this terrible fate, it is important to invest in lightening up the other two pillars of the “big three”. You already have the lightweight backpack at this point. Now it is time to find a lightweight tent and a lightweight sleeping bag to complete the set. From there, start to go through your packing list and cut unnecessary gear. Do you really need 5 shirts for a 3-day backpacking trip? Do you really need that camp chair to sit on as you cook dinner or would a rock suffice? Or what about those footy pajamas and the doormat to wipe your feet on before entering your tent? (Okay, busted! Now we are just busting your chops!) But in all honesty, it is important to learn to evaluate what you really need and what you can do without.

  1. Please don’t forget to use the old noodle.

No, not ‘noodle’ as in the pasta. (Although, you will probably use more pasta than a normal person’s lifetime quote over the course of your backcountry endeavors.) ‘Noodle’ as in your thinker. Your noggin. Your brain!

Extra clothes stuffed in a stuff sack make for an excellent, makeshift pillow. Just one of many multi-functional items.

Many a rookie lightweight backpacker has fooled himself into thinking that getting the gear and lookin’ good was all there was to it. However, that is only half the battle. Before you set off into the sunset, you need to take some time to evaluate what you carry between your ears. Gain some lightweight backpacking know-how. As the classic adage goes, the more you know, the lighter you can go. (Or at least that is our interpretation of that saying.)

You need knowledge and skills to safely navigate the world of lightweight backpacking. Ultimately, the goal is to learn how to do more with less. This will help you to be smart about things like how much water weight you need to carry at one time, what pieces of gear can effectively serve multiple purposes and countless other helpful tidbits to reduce your weight load without sacrificing comfort, safety, or pleasure.  When it comes down to the brass tacks of the matter, once you are out in the backcountry, the library, local outdoor courses, and even Google are pretty far from your reach so do your homework in advance. You’ll be glad you did!

Make sure you get enough calories when you are out on the trail. You can find lightweight, high calorie food to help keep your pack light.

  1. Please don’t neglect to pack enough food.

Very few things can turn fun into fatigue as quickly and effectively as hunger can. But as you watch the scale weight creep up as you load your food into your pack, your wheels start turning. You have worked so hard to get your base weight down, and you are not about to let all that hard work go to waste for a couple extra snacks. You’re sure you can get by on just a granola bar for lunch. Or maybe you don’t actually need that salami with your dinner. Plain soup broth ought to be fine, right? Stop right there. We are here to tell you that soup broth alone will not be fine.

After hauling a pack around, conquering mountain passes, and moving non-stop for hours; you need calories. In fact, you need a lot of calories. Without enough of them, you are setting yourself up for trouble. The reality is that no matter which way you cut it, food is going to add some weight to your pack. That being said, there are still ways to be smart about it.

  • Bring along dehydrated food that you can rehydrate as needed. This removes the water weight that a particular food would regularly carry.
  • Focus on calorie dense foods. Things like candy bars, salami, cheese, peanut butter, and nuts are all great choices since they pack a big caloric punch.
  • Plan out your meals ahead of time according to your mileage, number of days out, and estimated caloric output. By packaging food into daily rations you can easily check if you have enough or too much. While you are out on the trail, this will also help to ensure you still have enough food left on the last day.
  1. Please don’t assume that one size fits all.

If a somewhat bulkier sleeping pad is the difference between sleeping through the night or not, it might be worth the extra ounces. Decide what is best for your lightweight backpacking style.

Let us clarify. This is not a reference to packs or clothing. Rather, this mistake avoidance tip alludes to the concept that all lightweight backpacking styles are not the same. What works for one person might not work for the next. There are all sorts of nuances to consider and they all depend on the individual. Sometimes a little extra weight is worth it for the added comfort it provides. Other times, the added weight does nothing but aggravate the knees. For example, if you absolutely, positively cannot sleep on a lightweight sleeping pad, perhaps it is worth it to add an ounce or two for a more substantial sleeping surface. If you are running on no sleep due to something you could easily remedy with a slightly heavier sleeping pad, all the signs point to an unnecessarily long, not-so-fun day of hiking come morning.

It is a trial and error process to sort out what the right lightweight backpacking kit looks like for you personally. Lightweight backpacking is supposed to make the experience better for you! While it is important to think consciously about the weight you are carrying, if you are confident that adding a little weight will enhance your overall experience then go for it! There is no right answer. Well, other than you should be having fun! (And don’t litter. That’s another big rule, albeit unrelated to this topic.)

  1. Please don’t become so obsessed with counting grams that you forget to count your blessings.

Correct us if we are off base here, but the whole point of backpacking is to get out and be present in the outdoors. Right? Oftentimes lightweight backpackers (and this goes for newbies and seasoned veterans alike so listen up) come down with a case of tunnel vision. That is to say that they become so obsessed with counting every gram that they forget why they came out into the backcountry in the first place. As we discussed above, there are all sorts of different ways to enjoy lightweight backpacking. If you can carry a water bottle, a handle-less toothbrush, and nothing else and still take in the beauty of the backcountry…go for it! More power to you! In a nutshell, don’t forget to sit back, smell the flowers, look around, take a deep breath of fresh air, and just love every minute of your experience for what it is.

Now it is your turn. Anything you would like to add? Have you made any rookie mistakes over the years?


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