going light backpacking

To consider while buying backpacking gear this winter (probably for the summer, but you might be more hard core than I) …

Why go lighter with my backpacking kit? This question became more urgent for me after a couple summers working for OB in Colorado. I felt like the disheartened housewife on those info-mercials, as I schlepped my 60-plus pound pack after a resupply, thinking, “There must be a better way!”

And, indeed, there is. In my explorations over the past five years, I’ve found a big handful of reasons why I’m a happier and better instructor if I can keep my pack at a reasonable weight (base weight of 15 – 20 pounds, including OB stuff).

Those reasons include :

 Simplicity. A transferable skill for our students’ lives, going lighter means, in some ways, doing more with less. You’re not being dangerous or stupid, just making do with what you have.

 Craftsmanship. Ultralight gear provides another opportunity to teach craftsmanship through role modeling. Most ultralight gear will not withstand much abuse. There are places where that just won’t work (like a flimsy rainjacket won’t hold up to a North Cascades bushwack) and places where it’s just a matter of taking better care. Like using a lighter shelter: don’t step on it, don’t poke it with branches. Taking care of your stuff equals good craftsmanship.

 Longevity. A lighter pack is better for your knees, back, ankles, and whole body. Lighter weight means more field days possible with less chronic injury.

 Energy. I found I had more energy to devote to my students with a lighter pack and that I felt less spent when we arrived at camp.

 Safety. Should the need arise to take on some of the students’ weight, perhaps in the case of an emergency, you will be more equipped to do so as you load back up to a more “normal” pack weight.

Going light does not mean being stupid. This article is intended for those of us in the field that want to lighten our loads and still do a good job working for Outward Bound. There are some great stories out there about instructors not bringing rain gear, not bringing a sleeping bag, not carrying their manuals. All dumb choices. You will still carry a sat phone, your teaching resources, all that.

And so, if it interests you to carry less weight and still be completely and totally prepared as a good instructor, read on.

While some ultralight techniques and gear will not work for the OB instructor, many can serve us well. Some that have worked in my experience are below, divided by category.


Still hauling a Whisperlight? A super bomber stove has its place, of course, but for most of what I do, a superlight soda can stove works great (and has its downsides; do your research). It’s also a cool transference piece, as you can show your students the stove you built out of old soda cans, reinforcing that you don’t need to be rich to have a good time out there. There are great templates to build these stoves at zenstoves.net and jwbasecamp.com/Articles/SuperCat/index.html

Also, if you have the cash to replace your old pots, too, go for some titanium cookware, only as big as you need it.


Here’s where some cash gets plunked down. There’s no way around a high-fill-rating (like 800 or more) down bag being the lightest for its weight. And for those of us committed to caring for it (i.e. keeping it free from water at all times), it’s super worth it. And you already know that sleeping with all your clothes on allows you to carry a lighter-weight bag.

Your shelter: is it what you need? Too much? Decide your space needs, and get a sil-nylon shelter that meets it. Take care of that shelter, which will still have a high tensile strength (pull on the fabric), but much lower puncture resistance (sticks, rocks, bears, etc). Replace any beefy p- cord with some of lighter weight where you don’t need the durability. Get some thinner titanium stakes for the corners (I still use fatter ones for the ridgeline).

Check out your groundsheet. Do you really need that big red space blanket? You know the one. Cut a piece of Tyvek, or similarly durable and weatherproof material, to a little bigger than your sleeping body for the same weather-and-dirt-proofness while shaving a few ounces.

One cost-free trick: use your backpack as your lower-body sleeping insulation. You carry the pack all day; why not use it? Carry only a half pad for your torso, use your backpack for your legs. Again, a cool transference piece for your students: paying less for gear and using what you have (along with a trick for them to double up their sleeping pads under their torsos if they’re sleeping cold at night).


We as instructors tend to be pretty good about this one, certainly with the basic tenant of just bring what you need (i.e. one t-shirt). The biggest learning here for me has been around what I need to be beefy and durable, and what I don’t. As in: I don’t need my Guide Pants (rugged, Schoeller, weigh over a pound) on a backpacking course; I’ll just bring long undies, shorts and lightweight rain pants without zippers. I do want stronger pants early season alpine climbing, or for lots of bushwacking. Same with a rain jacket.

In general with all your clothing, opt for more simplicity, and not for extra zippers, pockets, and materials you don’t need. Go light where you can and where it makes sense. You know your course area, so tailor accordingly and err on the side of warmth, dryness, and durability.


Another big area where you’ll need to look at what you do in your course areas, and decide where having lighter gear makes sense. In the courses I’ve worked, I’ve seen lots of instructors carrying their sport-climbing harnesses, two big lockers, 18 ft of 7mm cord, etc . . . all this versus, on the other end of the spectrum, a superlight adventure-racing harness, two lightweight lockers and smaller pieces of p-cord for a third hand and prussic. The differences between these two systems alone will likely run at least one pound . . . one pound you carry pointlessly for 22 days.

Course type-specific gear is a great area to ask around, search the internet, find gear that is both really light and still allows you to be a prepared instructor. Have fun geeking out with ounces as you check out headlamps, harnesses, footwear and sporks.


Only carry what you need. You know how we have our students leave behind the giant economy bottle of sunscreen? It’s like that, only more refined. Figure out how much sunscreen, toothpaste, bug juice, etc, you use, and bring only that amount per expedition; stash more in resupply. Bring one or two pieces of floss and re-use them. Use powdered toothpaste and carry what you need in a tiny container. Repackage things like Aqua Mira into smaller ounce-droppers; you can get these smaller containers at some hardware stores, some outdoor stores or online lightweight stores like Gossamer Gear (.com).


Take your manual out of that burlap sack of a case and into a ziploc, connected with a single binder ring. Shrink your necessary paperwork and readings to as small as you can see it (I do a 10-point font, printed two pages per sheet). Make everything double sided.


This should be one of the last things to go light, as there’s nothing worse than carrying lots of heavy stuff in a really light pack (Colorado did this as a course type five years or so ago, which amounted to slightly lighter tarps and bags in frameless GoLite packs . . . disaster!).

When you’re ready, check out the myriad of sub-four-pound packs on the market. Most of us will probably want a model with a frame.


Do you really need a hard case for your sunglasses? Can you use your waterproof trash compactor sleeping bag liner as a whiteboard? Still using that waterproofed denim stuff sack? Are you carrying pliers for field repairs and carrying pot grips? Rethink all of your systems with an eye for multiple uses (i.e. pliers are pot grips, your sleeping pad is your chair).

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, have fun with this. I’ve found that lightening my load with OB has increased my awareness of what I have and what I need, and how it all works. This element of enjoyment can be a great asset for instructors, as we stay psyched on what we do, and pass that excitement onto our students.

Have fun making a lighter pack and working for Outward Bound! Just make sure you bring your sleeping bag.

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