ArticlesThe Lightweight Philosophy

Getting Light Weight

Easier paddling, quicker camp set-up and takedown, and less strenuous portages are a few of the many reasons to switch to lightweight paddling. With those reasons in mind, it’s time to take the mental leap and figure out how to slim down your pack weight and move into the world of lightweight paddling.

This article will set out to put you on the right path to losing extra-unneeded weight. First, I’ll define a few terms in the lightweight paddling movement, and then I’ll layout a system you can use to realistically evaluate your current gear and then reduce the weight of your gear quickly. Here and there, I’ll throw in some humor and antidotes from my conversion from heavy weight backpacker to lightweight paddler.

Lightweight Terms

If you’ve walked into any outdoor equipment retailer lately, you’ve probably noticed the terms light, lightweight, Ultralight written on everything from pots and pans, plastic kayaks and canoes, sleeping pads, to packs. It seems like everything is now lightweight.

But wait. If everything is lightweight, then one just needs to replace old gear with something labeled lightweight. Well, we’re not as stupid as the marketing geniuses believe. Lately, the outdoor industry has embraced one aspect of the lightweight movement and that is the term “light.”

So, let’s define a few terms that appear in the lightweight movement, so we can understand the difference between the marketing hype and the movement. The terms are: Traditional, Lightweight, Ultralight, and Superultralight. I’ll also define a few terms that are useful when talking about gear lists, because that’s where we’re heading next.

Lightweight Movement

A ground level movement of wilderness travel trying to reduce the weight of the equipment the practitioners carry for any number of reasons, including but not limited to the following reasons: Easier on your body, go faster, go further easier, environmental responsibility, develops important wilderness skills, simplifies your life by requiring less equipment, good for cottage industry, good for bringing your other heavy hobbies with you.


Traditional refers to traditional backpacking or paddling equipment that without food or water will result in a pack weight when hung on a scale of around 30 to 40 pounds.


Lightweight refers to using traditional equipment that is lighter to arrive at pack weights without food or water that range from 15 to 25 pounds.


Ultralight refers to using lightweight gear and techniques to utilize that gear to fullest to arrive at pack weights without food and water that are equal to or less than 12 pounds. There is a little play around this weight, but over 15 pounds certainly moves you to Lightweight and out of Ultralight.


Superultralight is the cutting edge of the lightweight movement. It refers to using techniques and gear to have a pack weight of five pounds or under without food or water.

Total Weight Worn or Carried

A measure of the clothing that you are wearing and items that you are carrying that are not in your pack. For example, the watch on your wrist and the shorts on your legs or the boots on your feet.

Base Pack Weight

The weight of everything in your pack and of the pack itself without food or water. Base Pack Weight is used to determine what category of weight you fall into: Traditional, Lightweight, Ultralight, or Superultralight.

Weight of Consumables

This is the weight of items that will be consumed during the trip, such as daily water carried, a measure of food in pounds per day, and the fuel for a stove.

Initial Pack Weight

The weight of your pack at the start of a trip including the consumables.

Full Skin Out Weight

The initial pack weight plus the weight of Total Weight Worn or Carried

Paddling Gear Weight

The total weight of your canoe or kayak, paddles, paddling specific rescue gear, pfd, and anything that is attached to your watercraft.

Sample Lightweight Gear List

A sample lightweight gear list can be found in the 35Day Challenge.

What do I think?

After hauling a 40 to 60 pound pack 2159+ miles down the Appalachian Trail and ending up with beat up knees, I decided I had to reduce my backpacking weight in order to keep on backpacking.

As I did this, I found that I enjoyed camping in an Ultralight style. This naturally transferred to my paddling, and I found not only portages were easier, but also paddling the kayak or canoe became easier, because I wasn’t expending all that extra energy to move the gear through the water.

I tend to ignore the clothing I wear (because I love what I’m currently using) and worry more about my Base Pack Weight, and Paddling Gear Weight. I keep watch over my consumables, and I usually carry a load of camera gear with me, which raises my pack weight into the Lightweight category.

If I had to list my favorite reason for traveling in the style I do, it would be simplicity. Because I have the skills to travel lightly, I really enjoy the ease of setting up and taking down camp. It feels good not having to haul the kitchen sink with me. Plus, on long trips, every ounce slows you down.

Reducing Weight – A System

Now that we’ve gotten through the tough stuff – the definitions – let’s talk about the fun stuff – the gear. That’s right; we get to be gearheads for a while. First let’s break down a gear list into several sections. We do this for two reasons: 1. To make a gear list more readable and more usable for our purposes, and 2. To redefine some Traditional wilderness travel concepts. We must redefine these Traditional concepts to be able to move into the territory of Ultralight.

We’re going to breakdown the lists into the following sections: Clothing Worn, Items Carried, Other Clothing, Sleep System, Packing Gear, Cooking System, Other Essentials, and Consumables. As far as the concepts, let’s talk a little about systems. Systems are a combination of skills and equipment that we’re going to use to help us reduce weight by combining the functionality of several pieces of gear and a few skills to arrive at a more functional piece of gear.

The systems breakdown into Clothing System, Sleep System, Packing System, and Cooking System. In addition, you could add a First Aid System.

Another way to think about systems is that instead of buying an individual piece of gear, like a sleeping bag, think about buy a full set of items that compliment the rest of your gear. So, in the sleeping bag example, you also need to consider the type of shelter, sleeping pad, warm clothing, in addition to the conditions you’ll be traveling in, and in addition to just the sleeping bag that you want.

Here’s a little bit about the different systems.

Clothing System

A clothing system is a pretty easy concept for most people who have been exposed to the layering technique that is preached consistently in the outdoor education community. This layering technique tells us to use multiple layers of clothing starting with a base layer that wicks moisture from the body and transfers that moisture to an insulation layer, which in turn passes the moisture to a waterproof but breathable outer layer. By removing and adding layers of clothing, we can adjust the amount of clothing we need to stay warm and avoid overheating in a variety of weather conditions.

For our purposes, we need to understand that you want the smallest number of clothing items you can carry and because of that, the items that you carry must be extremely versatile. For example, instead of carrying a windbreaker and rain jacket, use the rain jacket as a windbreaker. Or use the windbreaker as insulation. In addition, parts of your insulation in your clothing system may be used in your sleep system. It’s important to think in terms of a whole system when selecting gear.

Sleep System

A sleep system includes everything needed to comfortably sleep in the outdoors in the conditions that you’re going to be in. Most often, this system will include a sleeping bag, a shelter, something to insulate you from the ground. Sometimes it may include clothing from your clothing system as extra insulation that you pack as extra protection. It may contain a bivy, a hammock, and many other items that when combined together arrive at the lightest possible kit to satisfy the users needs.

A Bad Time Under a Tarp

A tarp is so simple that it’s elegant. I love tarps, but I have had some problems with them. On one solo trip, I awoke in the middle of the night disorientated after a flash of light. At first, I thought that the thunder storm had sent a bolt right down on top of my tarp, but the splashing rain soon woke me enough to realize that my makeshift tent pole, a large log, had fallen right on my head.

I scrambled to fix the tarp, which was fine the rest of the night.

If I based my view of tarps on that one bad experience, I probably wouldn’t be using them today. I’m glad that I gave them more of a chance, because now that I know how to set them up and utilize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses, I can’t believe that there is anything out there more comfortable to sleep under.

A single bad experience with lightweight gear shouldn’t color your whole view. Make sure you learn the proper techniques to use lightweight gear systems before you head out into the woods.

Packing System

Packing systems are going to differ between watercraft. In a canoe, most often some sort of backpack or portage pack will be required to carry the other bags that gear is pack into. In a kayak, often all that is needed is some sort of stuff sack – waterproof or not – to keep your gear from moving around inside the hull. The packing system is also going to include the small bags that you use to organize your gear.

Cooking System

A cooking system includes all the items that you will require to cook and purify water. Many lightweight proponents will use pop can stoves and alcohol, because it is one of the lighter weight stove alternatives. Often a pot cozy is included in the system. A pot cozy is something that you wrap around your pan and it helps reduce fuel usage, which in turn lightens your load over the long run.

A Way to Light Weight Travel

So, now that we know about lightweight systems, it’s time to realistically look at your gear list and start downsizing. The best way to do this is build a spreadsheet that can track your gear and its weight.

To build your gear list, use Excel or if you don’t want to spend the money download the equally great, Open Office. In the spread sheet, list the above systems and start entering the gear you currently have and what it weighs.

As you are doing this, see if you can reduce any weight by removing items from your packing list that are redundant between multiple systems. For example, if you bring a down coat and a 20 F bag, you should be able to drop down to a 30 to 40 degree F bag and use the down coat as extra insulation. This will save you a pound or more.

Once you eliminate redundant gear, start to evaluate the gear you usually bring for items that you usually don’t use. If you don’t use it, don’t carry it. There are some exceptions for the usual safety gear, like paddle floats, sat phone, first aid kits, but even those should be evaluated for redundancy.

When you’re satisfied that you have reduced the weight of your gear by eliminating redundant items and dropping out items you don’t use. It’s time to go shopping. Really start to look at the items you carry, compare them to other people’s lists, and go shopping online to try and find items that weigh less than what you’re carrying. List these items, weights, and cost in a new column corresponding to your current equipment.

100 Pound Food Bags

On a late fall trip to the Boundary Waters, the four of us made some ambitious plans and had delusions of grandeur about our mileage. We should have know better after the first night when we spent several hours just trying to get our three massive food bags hung in a tree.

For an hour, we tugged, pulled, got running starts and slowly the hundred pounds of food were lifted into the air. The next day, we had one of those long uphill portages that never end. At least, it felt like it never ended, because of the multiple portages.

A couple of years later, I paddled almost the same route again using lightweight tactics and found the portages to be little more than a small bump, and, of course, I was able to hang my bear bag on my own.

The key is to slowly replace items that are heavy with items that are light. Try to make your first replacements the ones that offer the biggest weight savings. Usually, these will occur in the big three: packs, tents, sleeping bags. These three items usually weigh the most and if you are coming from a Traditional system, switching to lightweight gear can often save around seven to ten pounds right at the start.

Then work toward reducing the weight in your pack with the smaller items. Often too many cloths are brought because items aren’t versatile enough. So, make sure that new clothing items are lighter and more versatile, so that you can eliminate any extra items that you have to carry.

This simple spreadsheet system is key if you seriously want to lessen the weight in your pack or carried in your hatches.

Lightweight Mind

After you start to look at your gear as systems instead of individual items and once you evaluate your gear list, you’ll have taken the first step to traveling lighter. After your first trip with new lightweight gear, you may find that you want to make your loads even lighter. I know I did.

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