After years and years of backpacking and thousands of miles, this is where I’m at now. Only a few years ago I was backpacking 100 miles through the Scottish Highlands with a “lighter” 30-pound base pack.
At the end of the day I’d throw that thing on the ground and curse it (it also held 10 pounds of camera gear and 15 pounds of food/water for 55 pounds).
I’ve evolved from a 35-pound base pack to now a 15-pound base pack and I’m happy there.*
*”Base pack” meaning all of my gear EXCEPT food & water and what I’m wearing. Not including camera gear either.
This is called “lightweight” and not “ultralight”. I think I’ll stop just short of joining the ultralight cult where you cut out your clothing tags to save fractions of ounces.
WHAT TO BRING
Weather in the mountains can turn foul quickly and without much warning, especially in the Sierra Nevadas. You’re on the summit one day and it’s sunny and 70 degrees; the next day it’s snowing. It’s important to be prepared with the right gear.
I’ve found the following gear is what works for me now, and also worked for a 19-day trip along the John Muir Trail (with a few additions; read the report here).
You’ll see I wear lightweight hiking shoes and ultra light mini socks. This only works with a light pack. Anything heavier and you’ll have to upgrade to heavier shoes and heavier socks. See the trend?
I had been on the road to lightweight backpacking already, and this pack pushed me to the finish line. The pack itself comes in at just under 2 pounds, but the max suggested load is about 30 pounds. I was forced to get smart with my packing.
With a 15-pound base pack weight and 10 pounds of food & water, that gives me some room to spare.
I don’t have a rain cover for it. I line the inside with a heavy-duty trash compactor bag and put everything I want to keep dry inside of that bag and twist it shut. The pack is water repellent enough already.
SLEEP & SHELTER
REI Dash 2. Read my review here. This is the lightest 2-person tent REI has ever produced, but I’d say it’s more like a 1.5-person tent. It’s 4.5 feet wide at the head which makes for some close quarters with two people. However, each person does have their own entry zipper and gear vestibule. It’s comfortable as a 1-person tent without much extra weight.
Advertised minimum trail weight is 2 lbs 7 oz, but that doesn’t include stakes or footprint. You’ll need a footprint because of the thin floor, and stakes are needed to make it taught (though it’s considered ‘free-standing’).
With tent, poles, fly, stakes, and footprint it weighs 3 pounds 6 ounces. Stands up to winds well and keeps you dry in blowing rain.
REI Flash Insulated Air Sleeping Pad. It takes a short while to inflate this 2.5-inch thick pad with the lungs, but it’s comfortable, warm with an R value of 3.2, and the taller tubes on the sides keep me from falling off when I toss at night. Great for side sleepers. Pretty impressive at only 1 pound. Works great on cold ground, but when the ground is warm and I want to go even lighter the Thermarest Z Lite Sol short is the alternate.
Sierra Designs Zissou 23 Down sleeping bag. I opted for down for a variety of reasons, and this bag has water-repellent down to allow for some slop in wet conditions. A 23-degree bag on its own won’t keep you warm in the Sierras, but if I need to sleep in my down jacket I’ll do it since I’m carrying it anyways, and socks/long underwear/pants. That’s a good compromise to get a “warm” bag down to 2 pounds 3 ounces. Comes with a small zippered pocket to keep your phone batteries from draining in the cold at night.
COOKING & HYDRATION
Jetboil Zip. I’ve gone back and forth between cook systems. Right now I’m settled on the Jetboil Zip, a compact cook system weighing in at 12.5 ounces, including 100g of fuel. This is a simple system without an igniter, but it’s light and boils water really fast.
I had previously used the Esbit Solid Fuel Stove and Cookset (Read my review here). This is an even simpler, even lighter system (7 ounces) but it doesn’t boil water very well at high altitude. Good for altitudes lower than 6,000′ though, and you only need to carry the fuel you’re planning on using (no canisters).
Both of these systems are only good for boiling water, as you can’t control the flame for simmering or anything like that.
Light My Fire Titanium Spork. Fork/serrated edge on one end, spoon on the other. I don’t use the sporks with the tongs on the spoon because they won’t let me scoop the last of the goodies out of the corners of my pot.
Don’t get the plastic versions of these because they break easily. Titanium will last and only weighs 0.7 ounces.
Big enough to pack four day’s worth of food (as long as you stay away from those bulky freeze-dried things) yet small enough to fit perfectly in my pack horizontally. It’s 2 pounds you can’t really escape from unless you go with a bear bag, but many places are now requiring these canisters.
For excursions any longer than four days you’ll need the BearVault 500.
Also doubles as my camp seat.
Platypus 1L SoftBottle. I carry two but when I know I have water sources available I only carry one full bottle. The other is rolled up in my pack and I’ll only fill it up if I know I’ll be going almost a full day without a water source. Each bottle weighs 1 ounce. A Nalgene bottle, good if you plan on rolling them down a mountain, weighs 7 ounces.
I’d rather fill frequently than carry an extra two pounds of water. A big change from the days I used to carry 3-4 liters of water (6-8 pounds) and walk right past perfectly good streams!
I replaced the standard caps with Platypus push-pull caps.
Aquamira. I switched from my 11-ounce filter to this 3-ounce chemical treatment system (3 ounces will treat 50 gallons of nasty water). Nothing to break, nothing to maintain, tastes great.
It does take about 5-15 minutes to do its job. I use my cookpot and a funnel lined with a bandana to pre-filter water into the Platypus bottle when the water has floaties. Then I add the Aquamira.
A great backup system (though not as easy to drink with) is the 1.3-ounce Sawyer Mini.
Montbell Super Merino Wool Action shirts. Synthetic shirts dry quickly but they STINK after a day. And I mean STINK. Wool shirts dry almost as fast, they regulate temperature very well, and I can wear them for weeks without stinking (wool is naturally anti-microbial). I carry only one short sleeve and one long sleeve. It’s unnecessary to carry any more than that. And I can’t afford it! They weigh 6-8 ounces.
Montbell Thunder Pass rain pants. A little on the heavy side at 9 ounces but they’re rugged and highly waterproof.
I’d rather have this shell in my pack than hike long distances with soaking pants.
Marmot Zeus Down jacket. 700-fill and 14.4 ounces, it’ll keep you warm when those cold snaps come through and on those high passes.
It’s not waterproof so make sure you have a rain shell – down loses its effectiveness when wet.
Marmot PreCip rain jacket. Completely waterproof and windproof, it also breathes with technology I don’t understand. There are lighter waterproof jackets than this 11 ounces, but you’ll end up paying for it.
I bought slightly large for layering.
SmartWool PhD Outdoor Ultra Light Mini Socks. One pair on my feet, one pair in my pack. That’s it. And a pair of thicker wool socks for sleeping. They can be worn multiple times without washing and dry fast. They weigh a light 1.3 ounces.
These socks aren’t cushioned and probably won’t work for you if you have a heavy pack or sensitive feet.
Underwear. One pair in my pack, one under my pants. Clean them on the trail.
Exofficio boxer briefs are a lightweight, breathable synthetic with great odor control. The boxer brief cut helps eliminate thigh chafing.
I’ll also bring a pair of long underwear for added warmth.
ODDS & ENDS
First aid kit. I’ve stopped carrying a gigantic surgery-room-in-a-bag and now carry the Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight .5. Lightweight (just under 4 ounces) and in a waterproof bag.
It’s advertised to use for a “2-day trip”, but you really have to be a klutz to use everything in this kit in 2 days. I throw in a few extra bandaids and that’s it. I can improvise with my bandana/keffiyeh if I need to.
Having ten years of military pilot survival training also makes me feel more comfortable carrying a light kit.
Headlamp. I use the Black Diamond Storm. With the batteries it weighs 3.7 ounces and it has all the features I need – waterproof, dimmable white light capable of throwing light 70 yards, a red mode you can get to without going through white first, and a lockout so it won’t turn on in your pack.
AND WHAT I’M WEARING
The Columbia Bora Bora Booney is a time-tested one.
I also keep a thin wool hat in my pack.
Shirt. One of the two Montbell wool shirts I carry; see above section.
I’ll wear long underwear underneath if I need extra warmth.
Underwear. One of the two total pairs I carry; see above section.
Socks. Again – one of the two total pairs I carry. See above section.
Shoes. Probably one of the most religious aspects of backpacking gear. Reducing my pack load allowed me to go with some lightweight hiking shoes, and WOW. Each shoe is only about a half-pound less than traditional leather hiking boots, but it makes a huge difference I can definitely feel – especially at the end of a long day.
The North Face Hedgehog Fastpack GTX shoes are waterproof with Gore-Tex membranes and durable Vibram soles. These shoes, combined with the light wool socks, eliminate the need for waders – I can ford through a river and keep on going. They’ll dry after a couple miles.
They’re low-cut, so they’re not the best option if you have weak ankles but you can still get some lightweight hikers with ankle support.
REI’s Trail Light Gaiters are a good, lightweight option for backpacking around the Sierras.
Bear Spray. You have to know how to use it!
Illegal in some areas, like Yosemite. Check before you go.
Knife. After carrying a big fancy 8-ounce Leatherman forever, it dawned on me that the only part of it I ever used was the blade. So now I just carry a small folding knife clipped into my pocket. Something “cheap” and with a serrated edge like the Gerber Evo Mid Tanto.
I bring snow baskets if I’m expecting to run into snow. Poles aren’t very efficient in the snow without them. All other times I keep rubber tips on them, not really to protect the steel tips but to protect the rocks and avoid putting scratch marks everywhere I go. They also provide some traction on rock.
To each his own. Some people prefer to be comfortable at camp with chairs and camp shoes and so on, but that makes them uncomfortable on the trail (carrying so much stuff). I’d rather be comfortable on the trail and…well, I’m not even uncomfortable at camp with this spartan gear.
This is a good mix for me. If I want to sleep under the stars I won’t pitch the tent. But I’m not going to ditch the tent altogether and only carry a tarp. That’s just a leap I won’t make – yet.
Will this system work for you?