What to take
When I first started going out on day walks with groups, my kit usually only consisted of waterproofs, food and drink, my phone, some binoculars and maybe some weather related items such as scarves, gloves, sun hats or insect repellant. Winter walks sometimes demanded a more technical set of gear requirements.
On my first distance walk my kit didn’t consist of much more than these things apart from a guide book with maps and a compass. I therefore learned the hard way about how much water to carry, and the need for some items such as rain covers, dry-bags, spare batteries, a water filter, a head torch and a repair kit, to name but a few of the things I have found that I need. This first walk prompted the start of my quest for lightweight, appropriate and comfortable hiking and backpacking kit.
For me weight involves a practical concern with the effect it has on the miles I can walk. Generally less weight means more miles in a happier frame of mind. I read up a lot of the history and theory of the American lead ultralight movement but it was not until I staggered under the weight of my first rucksack with camping kit that I realised the significance of what I had read.
I was forced to confront the fact that the only way to ensure that I completed my charity walk of the Pennine Way with camping equipment and without support was to bring my pack weight down, which involved a complete re-think. I therefore did a lot of research and invested in some new kit for this hike.
The most useful piece of ultralight wisdom I would like to pass on to walkers who want to reduce their pack weight, is to focus on the “big three” items first:
- Sleeping system (Bag and mat)
- Rucksack / backpack
To these three, I might add a fourth which would be the cooking system or stove, although some hikers opt to go stoveless. Focussing on reducing the weight of these essential components of your kit is the easiest and quickest way to reduce your overall pack weight, although the kit choices you make are personal. I did a lot of research into various kit options and, without including brands, you can see the striking difference between the weight of my old and my new kit:
- Old shelter 1.75kg
- Old rucksack 1.8kg
- Old synthetic bag 1.6kg
- Old sleeping mat 1kg
- Old total weight: 5.8kg
- New shelter 860g
- New rucksack 800g
- New down bag 680g
- New sleeping mat 340g
- New total weight: 2.6kg
As you can see, my new “big three” essentials are less than half the weight of my old ones, freeing up over 3kg of spare weight capacity for the rest of my kit. The fact that an item is on the heavy side does not necessarily mean that it is a bad bit of kit, but it may mean that it is unsuitable for backpacking. I wish that more outdoor retailers would include weight on their websites and labelling as an important piece of technical information.
I don’t think that you can create a universal kit which will work for every walk, although there are some basic items which I always take including a first aid kit, map, compass, water and waterproofs. Instead I aim to assemble an appropriate kit based on my best guesses about things like weather, accommodation and terrain. To do this I ask myself questions such as: Is it likely to be muddy? Am I camping? Will there be midges? Will there be snow on the ground? The answers will inform my kit decisions, although there are still times when I get it wrong. Obviously there is no point in carrying any redundant weight such as insect repellant in winter or crampons in summer.
The importance of comfort is easily under rated by people who don’t walk in their kit all day, every day, in all weathers. On a long distance walk it becomes imperative to the success of the walk. Nothing will stop a walk as quickly as a chafing boot, the wrong sized rucksack, zipper problems or an un-proofed jacket, to give some examples which have caused me problems. Clothes should fit and footwear particularly should be professionally measured as it most likely to cause problems. Kit should ideally be tested, even if it is just by camping in the garden or going on a day walk. This way issues don’t emerge for the first time during your trip and throw your hike into disarray.
On the advice of other walkers, I subdivide my kit into areas when planning what to take, such as clothes, camping kit, household, technical, personal, toiletries and survival, keeping a rough tally of weight. Some walkers create spreadsheets to keep a running total of the weight of their kit. Once walking, I continue to assess which items I could do without and post them home, while also trying to buy or replenish any extra items I need. On longer walks like the Pennine Way, I also posted parcels to myself at various locations along the route (youth hostels are generally willing to keep parcels until you arrive) containing items such as food and maps.
Like many people I don’t have limitless funds, so my kit has been gradually acquired since 2000. Some items I am happy to pay a lot for, others I am quite happy to go with the cheaper alternatives. I often explore outlet shops, sales, second hand websites and charity shops when I am looking for gear and clothing. They may not like me for saying so, but it pays to watch out for the sales and bargain boxes of your favourite manufacturers. If you subscribe to their mailing lists, you will usually be the first to know about reductions.
I hope this post will address some of the issues involved in reducing your pack weight. There are some excellent websites, handbooks and magazines available to inform your specific kit choices. I continue to learn about my kit on every walk, but in the end the choices you make are personal, so this post is intended as suggestion rather than instruction or brand promotion.