Lightweight backpacking – Evolution not revolution

Sometimes it is bemoaned how lightweight gear is not used more. But it is. The longer view just has to be taken.


from Google Image Search. Image found on multiple websites.

Gossamer Gear recently published another blog post about the traditional definitions of lightweight backpacking. That it is time to reinvent what we mean by lightweight or ultralight backpacking.  And perhaps the movement has  to be evangelized a bit because mainstream companies aren’t really light (read the comments)

The backpacking blogging community tends to write in cycles about how the lightweight backpacking revolution is dead.  That it has to be changed.

Two years ago there was many blog posts about how the labels make no sense.   Or the other extreme is discussed: The movement is not dead at all.

And with GoLite, arguably the first mainstream lightweight gear  company, liquidating, there has been some speculation that lightweight gear is too niche of a market to appeal to the masses.

I do not necessarily disagree with any of the above per se. In fact, I have made similar points myself in the past.

However, as I was talking with a friend the other day, it occurred to me that people who backpack are lightening up by default.

A fact that seems to be ignored by the community of long distance hikers and their often intertwined kin of lightweight backpackers.  Both types seem to be active  on the online forums (Pot. Kettle. Black. Guilty as charged.. 🙂 .).

The comments on the various forums and blogs are that people take “big packs. big tents. big boots” and so on.

But I think the online backpacking community tends to have too narrow a focus.

We are in our little bubble and compare and contrast with each other as to what is the norm.

  • …Anything over a pound is considered heavy for a sleeping bad.
  • …A four pound pack? Monstrous!
  • …A free-standing five-pound tent? Time to hit the backpacking equivalent of Jenny Craig.

But I think that is the rather short-term view.  People ARE going lighter, just perhaps not by our rigid standards.

Don’t get me wrong.

I do not plan on taking a five-pound tent, a four-pound pack for solo trips and my Espresso maker.

But from what I can tell, the general backpacking public is indeed going lighter overall.

  • A NeoAir replaces the Therm-A-Rest….
  • A down “sweater” replaces the 200 wt fleece jacket. ….
  • An MSR Pocket Rocket replaced the MSR Whisperlite….
  • And so on….

Let’s look at 2000 vs 2014 gear for the  “average” (?!) backpacker. These are common, off-the-shelf items found at the store most well-known to the general backpacking public: REI. The exception is the fleece that I found more accurate specs for at  Most of the weights for the old items were found from the Backpacker Magazine Gear Guide archive found on Google. 

Download (XLSX, 10KB)

I suspect other items have similar drops in weight.

Tents seem to stay the same regardless of year (the REI Halfdome has the same specs in 2000 vs 2014. Seems to be the most popular backpacking tent at least in my rather unscientific eye-balling of what people use out here on weekends).  And a down sleeping bag is a down sleeping bag regardless of the year.

But just looking at some basic items, our average backpacker has dropped over three-pounds without trying.  Not a lot but any means, but that is almost two days of food for a person out for a typically short trip.

For the casual, weekend backpacker who maybe goes out once or twice a year, they are going lighter.

So fret not about the lightweight revolution..or whatever it is called today. Labels matter less and less.

It is more of a gradual evolution.

People will still take too much stuff…but the stuff is getting lighter overall.

Ain’t it a hoot?

People are becoming lightweight backpackers without even knowing it! 🙂



4 Replies to “Lightweight backpacking – Evolution not revolution”

  1. Speaking as a backpacker / cycle tourist who began in the 60s with a combination of ex-army and ex-school clothing plus a plastic mac, I think the greatest improvements to comfort, performance and weight carried have all come as a result of improvements in the materials available to gear manufacturers. There have arguably been revolutionary moments. For example, GoreTex meant I could carry less spare clothing. Others might make the same claim for the introduction of cuben fibre, but I wouldn’t as it has not changed anything else about what I pack. GoreTex did.

    The real disappointment though, is that it is harder than ever to buy simplicity – clean designs which include no unnecessary features – from main stream retailers. I don’t think they even prototype gear anymore, which is a shame as the big companies all started out as small companies which cared.

  2. Great points in this post.. Does a correlation exist the number of days backpacking per year and the weight of equipment? I I wonder how many nights the average backpacker goes out each year? For a lot of people, I imagine the investment in lighter gear isn’t worth it for a couple of weekend trips. It seems similar to the camera debate – there is a segment of backpackers who invest in excellent camera systems because they want to maximize the photographic potential of any trip. Then there are the masses who are satisfied with the results they get from their point-and-shoots or cell phones. Photography hasn’t died because people are content with middling optics; rather, to the point you have made, it has evolved to include disparate expectations.

    1. Dirk, you are probably correct. A person out one or two weekends a year is not going to replace their gear that still works well. If a person starts doing longer trips, then maybe. My townie bicycle is rather heavy compared to other bikes I could buy. But since I use it, well in town only, works just fine. If I did long bike tours, as with John, I’d rethink my gear.

      I suspect most casual backpackers are similar. Having said all that, mainstream gear is getting lighter. So evolving for sure.

  3. I read that gossamer gear post. I find these discussions of lightweight vs traditional backpacking, what “weight” means lightweight etc . . . tiring after a while. It is just backpacking, not rocket science, and most people aren’t thru hikers. First as you say even mainstream gear is getting lighter. If you go to REI and spend a reasonable amount of money the weight of your big 3 won’t be that bad. Most people who backpack a few times a year probably don’t care about the minutiae of whether that pack is a pound lighter and I think this image of all these people carrying 50 pound packs because they don’t know any better is silly. With some of this disuccsion it makes it sounds like there is an evil heavy gear mafia making people darry too much and I think there are a lot of backpackers with OCD on internet forums. Everyone who I have backpacked with who goes regularly quickly figures out that carrying less is easier (and none of them carried 50 pounds on their first trip!) and has figured out what they really need to bring for the conditions in terms of food, extra clothes etc . . . Most have gotten lighter gear if they intend on backpacking regularly or not always. I backpack several times a year with a former AT thru hiker who always backpacks with her 5 pound osprey pack and has no desire to change; she likes it and it works but what goes in the pack is light. In any case people seem to figure it out and enjoy themselves without obcessing over whether a 3 oz alcohol stove is too heavy compared to someone elses 1 oz stove.

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