Saturday, February 2, 2013

Rethinking My Pack - The Big Four

Lightening my load seems to be a continual process. Leading up to my hike last year, I was evaluating options, deciding what to leave in, what to leave out ... When I limped home from my nobo attempt, I tore thru my pack, took some stuff out, and replaced other stuff with lighter stuff. After all that, I still sent stuff home from the trail.

Spring is coming, and I'm looking forward to getting back on the trail. I've been going through my systems, and have cut an additional half pound of stuff out of my first aid kit and my charging system.

Of course it didn't cost me anything to take stuff out of my pack, but what could I achieve by looking at the heaviest, big ticket items?

What I looked at, what the weight savings are, and what'd cost me after the break!

The "Big Four" usually refers to the four heaviest/most expensive pieces of equipment - The pack, shelter, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Usually the place to get maximum weight savings as long as the items meet one's needs.

Pack - As you get rid of stuff, and scale other stuff down in size and weight, you might be able to use a smaller, lighter pack.

I'm currently carrying Ultralight Adventure Equipment's (ULA) Circuit backpack. It's a 4200 cu in, roll top design, weighing 39 ozs and a max load of 30lbs. By the time I got to Vermont, I had reduced the volume of my stuff down to where even with a full food bag, I was not filling the bag to the point I was getting up into the collar area. That was not a true summer load. I was carrying my summer weight bag, but I had some cold wx layers I wouldn't be carrying in the summer.. I was beginning to believe I could scale down to their Ohm pack. That's a 3960 cu in bag, max weight of 30lbs, and weighing 29 oz - A 10oz reduction with a fairly minimal reduction in pack volume, and no reduction in weight carrying capability! The penalty? $200

Sleeping Bag - You can carry a mummy bag with a hood and full zipper, or you can go with a backpacking quilt for significant savings in weight and packing volume. Once you laydown in a sleeping bag, the insulation underneath you is compressed and looses virtually all insulation. So why pack it? Quilts also have no zippers, most have foot boxes for warmth. For side-sleepers like yers truly the quilts make it easy to draw your knees up, and changing sides is much easier than in a mummy bag where one inevitably wakes up sucking a face full of nylon.

During the summer, I carry a Mountain Hardwear Phantom +32 Long mummy bag. It's 23 ozs, and packs up pretty small. Enlightened Equipment makes nice an 850 fill down, 6' quilt weighs 19.25 ozs for a 3.75 oz savings for $280. Katabatic Gear, makes a 14.6 oz quilt for an 8.40z for $370! Hammock Gear straddles the two with a 15.25 oz quilt for a 7.75 oz savings for $199.

Sleeping Pad - Younguns and back sleepers can live with those really thin, light foam pads. I'm neither young, nor a back sleeper, so I want a pad that will keep my hips off the ground. That means an inflatable. Because I'm hiking in the mountains during shoulder seasons, it needs to be insulated.

Right now I'm carrying an ExPed SynMat UL7 Short. It's 64" long, 20" wide, 2.8" thick, R 3.1, and weighs 15 ozs. I also carry their 2.25 oz Schnozzel Pumpbag that fills the pad without all the humidity from my breath ruining the insulation. It doubles as a dry bag for my sleeping bag. A Thermorest NeoAir XLite Short is 48" long, 20" wide, 2.5" thick, R 3.2, and weighs 8 ozs. Now that's considerably shorter, and would not neccessarily be something I'd want to use in the snow, but it represents a 7 oz savings with otherwise minimal lose of function. There's also a 72", 12 oz version, and a 66", 11 oz women's version. The NeoAir Pump Sack provides the same functionality as the schnozzel at 3.4 oz. The total system weight of the pad and bag is 11.4 oz for a 5.85 oz savings. Penalty? $160

Shelter - There are a lot of options here - Freestanding double wall, non-freestanding single wall, tarp tents, tarp/bivy systems, hammock/tarp systems ... All made from any number of materials, and all with some serious pros and cons ... We're getting into religion here.

I carry a LightHeart Gear Solo. It's made by one of the US cottage industries making the increasingly misnamed tarp tents. It has a bathtub floor, full mosquito netting enclosure and an integrated rain fly. Mine is made of silnylon. It uses my hiking poles to hold it up. All that and only 27 ozs. But LightHeart Gear makes the same tent out of cuben fiber weighing 18 ozs for a 9 oz weight savings. Penalty? $532!

Out of interest, I worked the numbers to see what the cost per ounce was for the savings...
Item Ozs Saved Cost Cost/Oz
Pack 10 $200 $20.00
Bag 7.75 $199 $25.68
Pad 5.85 $160 $27.35
Tent 9 $532 $59.11
Swapping out the pack, sleeping pad and sleeping bag gives the most bang for the buck, and I feel are worth pursuing ... An almost 25 oz reduction for only (gulp) $529, and at a cost of $23.60/oz. But I'm not ready to spend over $500 on a tent for 9 ozs at $59/oz ...

Last week I lightened my load by taking 9 ozs out of my pack. One could argue that cost me $0/oz.  Of course, it costs one a lot less to get it right the first time.

Good luck with that!


  1. "Of course it costs one a lot less to get it right the first time."

    You're right. I am constantly replacing the items in my kit with "better" stuff. It just never ends.

    Odd that one goal is to do more with LESS.

    1. Yes. The less I have on my back, the more I have in my garage! Guess that's what eBay's for ...

  2. The adage I just read on the Backpacking North (lifted from Backpacker Mag previously) is apt here, "The more you know, the less you carry." I found this to be very true. The longer I was on the Trail the more I would think about the weight on my back. If I found myself not using something, or coming up with a plan to double-use an item, I'd quickly and happily rid myself of weight! As an example I found using Gatoraide bottles instead of Nalgen, not only were they lighter but if I got to a 'wet' section of trail I could throw a bottle away and only have 2 liter capacity instead of 3 or 4. Also for dry camps I was carrying a collapsible bucket to begin with, but I found using 1 gallon ziploc bags actually worked better and again was lighter and had way more uses.
    The knowledge gained while walking every day with a pack on your back and all day to think about how great it would be to have a lighter pack is indispensable! I completely agree that removing gear is a much more economical way to a lite pack!
    My brother outfitted himself completely from army surplus (thus the Trailname SirPlus) and Walmart for probably $50 and his pack was lighter than mine. He roughed it, but still that's hundreds cheaper than what I spent on my ruk and I don't by any means have the most expensive stuff (I own no cuben fiber...)

    1. I've been using two of the 600ml gatorade bottles for awhile now. They hang from the purpose-built loops on the straps of my ULA Circuit nicely. I also dropped my collapsable bucket, but I replaced it with a pair of 1L Platys. Now one of the Platys has been replaced by the dirty water bag that comes with the Sawyer Squeeze filter system.

      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Bill,

    I think you are right-on in your approach. I switched to a quilt for temps above 35 degrees and wouldn't turn back. Your ability to control temps is much greater with a quilt. I've found that I have far more problems being too hot that being too cold. The quilt excels in its ability to be pushed aside.

    I just have a couple of other recommendations as you consider the options.

    1) As long as you are paying premium dollars for ounces, I'd highly recommend the Katabatic Designs Chisos 40 degree bag with a couple ounces of overfill stuffing (16 oz). The bags are manufactured beautifully, just like Western Mountaineering, and Feathered Friends. In addition to haveing all the benefits of all quilts (i.e ability to open vent/uncover), the Katabatic quilts have superior systems to keep the sides of the quilts tucked under you, so that you eliminate drafts when the weather is cold. This was my biggest concern when switching to a quilt, but the Katabatic system eliminated that problem. Here is a link to Katabatic:

    2) Check out Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) for packs and tarps (if you would consider switching from a tent). The Exodus Pack is builit proof and clocks in at 18 ounces.

    3) I've switched to using a bivy and tarp instead of a tent. My MLD Trailstar solo (10 ounces) plus superlight bivy (8 ounces). is about as light as it gets. The superlight bivy is water resistant, so it sheds spray, but breaths very well. By going with the bivy, you can protect yourself against the crawly critters in the shelters as well.

    I've never been happy hiking than I was last year with my lightweight set up. Keeping my pack at 25lbs or less was fantastic.


    1. I haven't quite brought myself to plunk down the bucks for a quilt. The Katabatic looks like a great one tho. It's considerably more expensive than the Enlightened Equipment, but it's also significantly lighter.

      I'm pretty happy with my Lightheart Gear Solo. I have a Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy w/ full net bug hood that weighs 7ozs, a relatively heavy (11oz) Integral Designs 5x8 SilTarp, and a tyvek ground cloth that's just a few ozs. I do like the idea of having the bivy for shelters, but I also like the privacy, waterproofness, and full bug enclosure of the tent. The penalty for hauling that tent instead of the tarp/bivy/groundcloth is ~8 ozs... A hard trade-off!

      I'm guessing my summer base weight will be around 16 lbs, and with mostly short runs between towns, and lots of places to eat along the trail during most of this summer, I should be able to keep food weight down. Should be a good hike.

      Thanks for your comments Robin. Hope to see you out there this summer.

  4. I've decided to really attack my summer weight, and ordered a ULA Ohm2 and a summer-weight quilt.

    The quilt is a Burrow 50° in the standard length of 74," with the standard straight taper. Cause I'm a side-sleeper, I asked for the 55" width, which costed $15 extra. The footbox has snaps so that it can be laid out flat. I asked for sewn-in tabs that will help keep it tucked in on colder nights. The start at 13.52 ozs. With the wide width, it'll probably be somewhere around 15, which is an 8 oz reduction at ~$23/oz.

  5. Dont stop the This article is really informative. I enjoy the amount of detail that has gone into this page. I will absolutely be a daily visitor from now on. great writing!

    1. Thanks for yer comments. I'm working on clothing next. Between the potential for freezing temperatures at the beginning of my hike, I need to find the right balance between staying safe and keeping the load light.


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