With thru hiker season upon us for the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, everyone is wondering about cutting pack weight. Most seasoned thru-hikers have their packing lists dialed and first-time long-distance hikers learn as they go. Everyone packs too heavy in the beginning. But, if you can find ways to minimize your pack weight, your feet, knees and mindset will definitely give you a high five. Having lightweight hiking gear is just the first step in reducing your pack ounce by ounce.

posing on hike

1. Ditch Your Toilet Paper

Before you groan and say “No way Jose,” hear me out.

Our trails are crowded. There are hikers who think burying toilet paper is leaving no trace. Then there are others who think burning their toilet paper is not at all risky. If you have to use toilet paper, you really should be packing it out.

Which is why we urge people to try rocks, leaves or snow for wiping. Much less of an impact and a definite weight-savings! Nature’s “toilet paper” is surprisingly comfortable (round rocks work the best). All I can say is, don’t knock it until you try it.

eating breakfast on thru hike

2. Target the Lightest Sleep System

The technology in sleep systems has come leaps and bounds, and the right one will make a world of difference. This is an area where you’ll want to make a serious investment.

Pound for pound, the warmest, lightest, most compressible and durable insulation choice is hydrophobic down. I used the sub-2-lb Therm-a-Rest sleeping bag in New Zealand, a fitting choice for an environment with tons of dew. Justin being a warmer sleeper, used the 35-degree Auriga blanket [now redesigned and updated as the Corus].

Both of us used the NeoAir XLite, weighing in at a mere 12 oz.

And, if you opt for a “shorter” pad and just sleep with your empty backpack under your legs, you can shave even more weight.

having fun on hike

3. Know Your Water Sources

The ideal place for carrying water? Inside you.

While walking the length of New Zealand, we carried only 4-16 ounces of water each day. Finding water sources was not a problem. On New Zealand’s South Island, we crossed 200+ rivers. We could camel-up any time we wanted instead of carrying the extra 2 pounds that 1 liter of water tacks on.

The same concept of carrying minimal water may be true for some AT sections, but not for the PCT.

The other part of this equation is knowing yourself and how much water you need to stay hydrated. I love my water, while Justin never seems to dehydrate drinking half the quantity I do.

Lastly, pay attention to your water containers. We carried Nalgene bottles on the AT, but they weigh 6.2 ounces compared to the 1.2-ounce weight of a Platypus SoftBottle or a store-bought wide-mouth liter bottle.

4. Minimize Packaging

Most retail packaging is bulky and heavy. Distributing your dried apricots, couscous and ibuprofen into seal-able plastic bags will not only help you to organize and plan out your food, but will save weight. If you are worried about the waste associated with bags, reuse them like we do.

A fellow hiker on Te Araroa in New Zealand transferred all the ingredients from the dehydrated meal bags to ziplocs, saving only one original dehydrated meal bag for the rehydration process, using it night after night. We have not tried this ourselves, but it seemed to work for him. Excessive packaging=unnecessary weight!

packing food for hike

5. Food, Glorious Food

The economy-sized peanut butter carried by our hostel guest was a little over the top, even if you eat peanut butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (True story: we met another hiker who did that. He lasted two days on the trail.) While there may be trails/sections where you are packing 10 days’ worth of food, more often than not, you are packing two/five days.

People tend to carry a surplus of food while backpacking. Justin and I purposely underestimate our backcountry food provisions. Often, we walk out of the wilderness with empty food bags. Sure we’ve had to ration a few times and heard our tummies grumble, but we have never been in a dangerous situation during our hundreds of nights in the mountains.

Food weight is variable, and planning out all your meals and snacks in advance allows you to keep it under 2-pounds a day. Eat your heaviest foods first! Thankfully, food represents diminishing weight.

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Updated. Originally Published March 16, 2021.