Please see the general hiking tips page for information about hazards, water and other similar things.
Where Things Start to Go Wrong
Most of us who start backpacking tend to bring too much gear and too much heavy gear. We figure we've got some camping gear already, we'll just get a backpack to carry it. We count out the number of days we plan to be out there, put in a change of clothes for each of those days, toss in some sweats and our heavy jacket, put in the dome tent and some food, maybe even some beer for a treat, and off we go.
There's nothing wrong with carrying 50 or 60 pounds of stuff to the mountains. I saw a guy carrying a canvas folding chair, the kind with cup holders in the arm rests. He'd walk a few hundred feet, then he and his buddies would rest a bit and so on. I'm sure they all had a great time drinking beer at Manzana Narrows or Fish Creek or wherever they went.
Even those of us who are not inclined to carry 60 pounds or more have usually found that backpacking is kind of arduous. Even 30-40 pounds can slow some of us down to the point where we look at the map and see all the places we can't get to because there simply is not enough time. I know I used to look at the map and at my 8 miles-per-day allotment most places were completely off limits to me. There would never be enough days to get there.
Even with enough days the problem tends to compound itself. To go farther means more days means more food which weighs more and then the pack is even heavier which slows you down so you need more days etc. How then to break this spiral?
What Can Be Done?
The trick is to carry very light gear. Believe it or not, you can hike in comfort with everything you need to be safe and warm and not counting your food and water, carry only 10 pounds or so of gear. Many people will scoff and say there's no way to be safe and warm with so little. But carrying only 10 pounds will not hurt your knees or back, you'll be more steady on your feet and less apt to fall and hurt yourself, and with all the new stuff out there, you won't be going without anything you need to be comfortable. You'll even save enough weight to add in a few luxuries.
The Big Three: Tent, Pack, Sleeping Bag
The three heaviest items are the tent, pack and sleeping bag. A huge amount of weight can be spared shaving weight from these three items. It is costly, however, to replace these items. Since these three items are also the most important ones, it will be money well spent.
For example, many people have a backpack that weighs 6 pounds or more, a tent that weighs another 6 pounds and a sleeping bag that weighs 3 pounds. That's 15 pounds and you haven't included anything else.
You can find internal frame packs that weigh less than 2 pounds, tents that weight a pound and sleeping bags for less than 2 pounds. You've already saved about 10 pounds right there. That's 10 pounds more food you can now carry to get you another 5-10 days out in the wilderness (if you have the time.)
When I was a kid, I packed with a crummy sleeping bag. I was always cold. When I finally had enough money to buy my own sleeping bag I got one rated to 0°. I finally got to see what it was like to backpack and get some sleep at the same time. However, my sleeping bag weighed nearly 3 pounds. I still use it, though, when it's going to be really really cold. But normally, I use a 20° bag instead.
Nowadays, you can find very warm, 800+ fill down sleeping bags rated to 20 degrees that weigh less than 2 pounds. Since the loft of the down is crushed under your body weight, so you can save even more weight by using a sleeping bag that has no bottom. It sounds crazy, but I've been quite warm using one of these types of bags, called a quilt. Quilts usually have straps or a sleeve that attaches the quilt to your sleeping pad. Your pad provides all the warmth beneath you that you need. A quilt will usually weigh about a pound, so there's not a huge advantage over a full sleeping bag that weighs only a little more.
With a 20° bag, if you get cold you can just put on your down jacket to add more warmth. That way you are putting your jacket to two uses and thus saving weight.
A few sleeping bags and quilts people like
Most people swear by double-wall tents. But in our arid backcountry, it's really overkill. Far better is to use a single-wall tarptent or a tarp or even a rain poncho.
While many brands of so-called "ultralight" tents out there weight more than 3 pounds, a truely ultralight tent should weigh about 1 pound. Much of the weight is saved by not including tent poles. Instead they will be built to use trekking poles in the set-up. If you don't use trekking poles, there will usually be an option to purchase regular tent poles, but you can be certain they will be much lighter than the kinds of poles that other tents use.
Tarptents are single-walled tents that may have full encolosure with netting and a floor or may lack or have removable netting and floors. Tarptents solve the condensation problem by having a lot of ventilation. They tend to be very spacious, too.
Even lighter than some tents is a tarp. There are many high-tech tarps with catenary cuts that make the fabric extremely taut and weather resistant. But even a rectangular, silnylon tarp will make an excellent shelter.
Tarps provide no protection against bugs, but they are fun to set up in all kinds of different configurations. They provide good shelter in the rain and you don't have to worry too much if the fabric gets wet. If your tarp is small, you may need a bivy sack for your sleeping bag to protect you from splashing water. A bivy sack is just a bag that is waterproof on the bottom and water resistant on the top. You slip the bag over your sleeping bag. A bivy bag sort of negates the weight benefit of the tarp over the tarptent in my opinion, but with the tarp and bivy you have flexibility to choose one or the other to suit the conditions. You can use the bivy all by itself without the tarp for extra warmth and creepy-crawly protection or use the tarp without the bivy or both at the same time.
You can protect yourself against bugs with a bug net, either one just for your head, or else you can find little bug net tents you can set up underneath your tarp.
The advantage of a tarp separate from the bug netting is that you can leave the bug netting home if you don't think you'll need it.
There are also many kinds of shelters out there that are sort of hybrids of tarps and tents. They are usually shaped like tents but open like tarps. Some of these shelters can even be used as rain ponchos, like the Gatewood Cape.
One key thing most ultralight shelters employ is the use of your trekking poles instead of separate tent poles. Tarps can even use surrounding trees and sticks, saving even more weight if you don't use trekking poles.
It can be hard to let go of the sense of protection a regular tent provides. But many people find being open to the outdoors to be surprisingly pleasant. Being able to see the stars and your surroundings makes you feel closer to the nature you came to enjoy. It's even a bit comforting to be able to see what's making those noises out there.
A few tents and tarps I've seen
It's easy to spend too much on packs. If you decide to embark on a weight-loss program for your gear, you may find that you buy a lighter pack, then your gear gets smaller and lighter, and then you need an even smaller and lighter pack. Some people recommend buying the pack last so you can be sure it's the right size and weight to hold your gear. But if your pack is 12 pounds right now, you better get a new pack right away.
There are packs without any frames at all that you can buy now. To provide some structure to the pack, they will use your sleeping pad as a sort of frame. You can stuff some tent poles, if your tent has them, into the sleeping pad to provide even more rigidity if you need it. Most of the time, your gear stuffed in tight provides enough support. You're limited in the amount of weight you can carry with a frameless pack. Usually the limit is under 30 pounds and sometimes even under 20.
Some very lightweight packs have aluminum or carbon fiber stays for support. These packs will usually carry 30 pounds in comfort.
It's a good idea to look at the weight of your gear and select a pack that can handle the weight, including your food and water. Choosing a pack that can hold only 20 pounds and then putting 30 pounds in it will make you very uncomfortable.
A few packs I've seen out there
Canister stoves and alcohol stoves are the lightest weight stoves you can bring that use fuel. Stoves that burn wood are also very light because you don't have to carry fuel. Canister stoves cook faster, but the canisters are bulky and it's hard to tell how much fuel is left when the canister is getting low. Alcohol stoves are very light, but the alcohol is heavy and they cook slowly. Cooking with wood is light but messy.
The good news is that with alcohol and wood stoves you can make your own out of things you might toss in the recycle bin otherwise. This saves a lot of money and is fun. You can even make your own cook pot. The Zen Backpacking Stoves site is the best resource for everything stove-related.
One way to save the weight of fuel is to use less. You can bring a pot of food to a boil and turn off the fuel. Put your pot into a home-made pot cozy, made of closed cell foam and let the stored heat finish the cooking.
Cookless is another way to save some weight. You can store, prepare and eat all your meals from plastic ziploc bags. You can "cook" your bag of food in the sun on top of your pack while you walk. Usually such no-cook food will be made of a dehydrated bean, pea, hummus or soup base with added, easily rehydrated veggies. And of course, energy bars, gorp, salami, cheese, crackers, poptarts and other similar foods do not require cooking.
A great way to save weight is to select a cook pot that is the right size and shape to eat and drink from. Let your cook pot be your pot, bowl and cup and you can leave all that extra stuff home. Personally, I don't like to use my cook pot as a bowl so I use a plastic greek yogurt container I saved from tossing out. It fits inside my cook pot and weighs almost nothing. It makes a decent cup, too.
I have yet to use a fork while backpacking. Most of my food is pretty mushy and soupy and easily consumed with a spoon. Therefore I bring a single plastic spoon, not a spork or fork. There are nifty titanium folding spoons now and long-handled spoons if you like those Mountain House dinners. The long handle makes it easier to eat right out of the bag. By not bringing a complete service of silverware you can save a lot of weight.
You change your clothes every day at home so you ought to bring a change of clothes backpacking too, right? What if you fall in a stream and get wet? You'll need extra clothing, won't you?
Actually, I don't think you need any extra clothing except for socks. It's good to have a spare pair of socks you only wear to bed, never or rarely hike in. Otherwise, you should select an outfit to hike in that is cool and comfortable and bring no extras. You're going to get dirty and smelly no matter what you do, so why bother with extras?
Clothing is pretty personal. Some people like to wear a base layer under their clothes. I get too hot. Some like a T-shirt. Others a long-sleeved polyester men's dress shirt. Some people prefer to hike in shorts and others long pants. Whatever you select, your clothing should not be cotton. It should be quick-drying and very light. Your clothing should protect you from sun but not provide much warmth. Hiking will provide a huge amount of warmth during the day and your other layers will provide warmth when you are not hiking.
After your basic hiking outfit, use your layers to stay comfortable and warm.
One of the most useful layers is something called a wind shirt. These are typically nylon shells that weigh less than 6 ounces. There are also wind pants. Whenever you stop to rest and it's a little chilly, put on your windshirt to maintain your body temperature. If you hike in shorts, use your wind pants in camp rather than bring regular pants. You will be surprised how much warmth a thin layer of nylon will provide.
After the windshirt/pants, you'll need an insulating jacket. I find the super thin down jackets or the artificial ones called various things like "micropuff" to be completely sufficient even to temperatures in the 20°s. If you plan to hike only a few hours a day and spend a long time lounging in camp, you may want something heavier, but if you hike until close to dinner time, you won't need anything that heavy. Proper campsite selection can also work wonders reducing what you need to carry to stay warm.
I don't think long underwear is necessary. It is much easier to put on layers on the outside rather than underneath. However, some people like to sleep in long underwear to keep their sleeping bag clean and have clean, dry clothing to sleep in. If you go that route, light silk underwear is lighter and will provide adequate warmth in bed.
The Principle of Multiple Use
When it comes to your gear in general, you should try to bring things that can do double-duty. My bowl is also a cup. My backpack is also my pillow. I can use my shoe insoles with some spare shoelaces and my warm socks as camp shoes. If you feel you need river crossing shoes, bring Crocs. You can cross rivers, wear them in camp and also hike in them if something happens to your shoes. Some models are as light as the lightest flip-flops and provide a much more functional shoe for the weight.
My backpack uses the principle of multiple use. It comes without padding in the shoulder and waist straps. They suggest you store your hat, gloves and extra socks there to use as padding. There is no frame. Instead you use your sleeping pad to provide support and rigidity to the pack.
I have a camp shower. It's basically a dry-bag with a shower nozzle at the bottom. Rather than being extra weight, I can use it as a stuff sack for my sleeping quilt or other items. My cook pot lid can function as a cutting board. The Jacks R Better No Sniveler quilt ingeniously turns your sleeping insulation into something you can wear to keep warm.
Wherever you can, try to see if your things can be used for more than one purpose. This will help you save weight.
Side-by-side with the principle of multi-use is simply bringing less.
There's the less quantity kind of bringing less. You probably don't need the entire bottle of DEET. Why not put a smaller amount in a tiny Visine bottle or something similar?
And then there's the simply less kind of bringing less. Do you really need all those little comforts? The folding chair, the lantern, the 5 LED headlamp that uses 4 AAA batteries, multiple items of the same kind. Do you need a whole tent with rain fly and mosquito netting if it's not mosquito season and there's no chance for rain? Maybe you can bring just the fly and sleep under that in the shelter of a nice tree if there is any unexpected rain.
After each trip, go through your gear and ask if you really needed it. If not, leave it home next time. For example, on my last trip I asked myself why I always wear a shirt under my long-sleeved hiking shirt. I tried the hiking shirt without the t-shirt underneath and I was actually much more comfortable. From now on, I'm not bringing a shirt for underneath.
Another thing you can go less on is toilet paper. Here's how.
Proper Campsite Selection
With a tarp or a tarptent, part of the shelter consists of proper campsite selection. Choosing a good campsite can make a difference of 30° or more sometimes.
Katabatic air is cold air that settles. It tends to flow down canyons at dusk and settle in creeks, lakes and meadow areas. Most people naturally select these areas to camp in. However, they are the coldest and prone to condensation. Your tarp or tarptent works much better if you select a site in a drier, higher location. Sometimes just a few feet will make a difference. You can still camp in the same camp site, just move up the slope a little or away from the coldest parts.
Trees also provide a lot of extra warmth. If you set up your shelter under a nice tree the tree will keep you warmer than if you are out in the open. If the wind picks up or it starts to rain, the tree will provide a little protection from these elements. Just make sure the tree is still alive and none of the branches are ready to fall. This can be a problem in our area because of all the fires we have had.
Just like you don't want to camp in cold canyons, you probably want to avoid windy ridges. Wind is cold and it's noisy. You'll stay up all night noticing how cold you are if it's really windy.
With good campsite selection you can leave your huge, puffy jacket and super bulky fleece pullover home in exchange for much lighter and less bulky substitutes. You'll still be as comfortable as someone with a thicker jacket because you simply will not need it.
I am not an expert on rain. Most people with a lot of experience suggest leaving the goretex home. It really doesn't work and it's way too heavy. All the effort of hiking will make you sweat so much inside you'll be drenched. The only time goretex works is when you are sitting still.
For what to wear in the rain it is good to consider your shelter. If you use a poncho for shelter you've already got something to wear in the rain. Use your windshirt as secondary rain gear. It will likely be water resistant. If your shelter is a tent, bring a rain jacket and use it for a wind and rain, leaving the windshirt at home. Many people will rely on the shelter to stay dry rather than on a garment, and select outerwear that is water resistant instead of waterproof.
It rains so little here you are better off with an umbrella or a poncho, in my opinion. If it starts to rain, wear the poncho or use the umbrella and keep moving until you can set up your tarp or tent. The nice thing about an umbrella is it can provide shade in addition to rain protection, but not everyone likes to carry an umbrella. You can fashion elastic ties to hold the umbrella to your shoulder strap so you don't have to hold it.
If you want waterproof rain garments, there are lighter options out there than gortex and so-called "waterproof/breathable" rain gear. You can get very lightweight rain jackets and pants called DriDucks or Frogg Toggs. They do not hold up for a lifetime, but they are very light and very comfortable. Many people will wear these as a light jacket since they are breathable and comfortable and provide warmth like a windshirt. You can get silnylon rain chaps that let your groin area breathe better than full rain pants. New fabrics are being developed all the time, too, and the ultralight backpacking folks are usually first to jump on them, although items made of new fabrics tend to be very expensive.
One of the advantages of a tarp over an enclosed tent is that if it is raining, you can pull the tarp out of your pack, put your pack down and toss the tarp over your pack. Then set it up, get underneath and unpack your things. If your tarp is nice and big, you can keep your wet things well away from your dry things. If the tarp is wet, it matters little because it's just a canopy over your head, not a bag you're sitting inside.
Finally, the best protection from rain in my opinion is to use the weather report and make sure the long range forecast does not call for rain. Then the rain gear you do bring can be very minimal. Fortunately our area is pretty arid with well-defined rainy and dry seasons. Once we've passed into the dry season, the chance of there being rain in the mountains is pretty minimal. In the Sierra or other places, it's not like this at all and you have to be prepared for rain all the time.