How to Lighten Your Pack Without Regretting It

Published 2021-07-10

By: Hope Gately

Stay tuned until the end of the article for an accompanying video from our friends at BackpackingTV.

The terms “ultralight” and “lightweight” are familiar terms in the backpacking community and with good reason; whether you’re hiking the PCT or powering through a three-day ramble in the backcountry, the weight on your back affects how many miles you can cover comfortably, your physical health, and your own mental resolve. But how do you lighten your pack without regretting it?

With the help of polar explorer, outdoor educator and MYSTERY RANCH Ambassador John Huston and Senior Product Developer Erin Moffett, MYSTERY RANCH discuss their tried and true methods.

Cook Over an Open Fire to Save on Stove Fuel

Camp stoves and cooking cylinders are bulky and often require heavy fuel. Skipping these modern conveniences in favor of an open fire not only saves weight but also connects you to the environment that you’re exploring.

John Huston uses this strategy for lightening his pack on expeditions and has this valuable insight to share:

“Cooking over a fire can be a wonderful experience. Sure, it’s more complicated and time-consuming than cooking on a stove, but it also connects you with the environment in ways a stove never can. Collecting the right firewood (kindling-size branches of dead and down wood, well away from your campsite) requires familiarity with your surroundings. Identifying tinder and trees with good burning characteristics can take things to another level. There are a bunch of stoves that use wood for fuel on the market today. Cooking on a fire is kind of like manual transmissions today, a vanishing vintage knowledge that is more work but way more engaging.”

Remember, utilizing fire in the great outdoors comes with great responsibility. Make sure you educate yourself on fire restrictions and allowances since these differ by region. These rules will also vary based on backpacking in designated wilderness, national forest, national parks or BLM land. Huston gives some common-sense safety rules of thumb when cooking in the backcountry:

“Obviously, fires can be a no-go during the ever-increasing hot and dry times of the year. It’s essential to follow local regulations and closely manage your fire. Keep fires small, make sure your pots are secure, and completely douse the fire.”

Choose High-Calorie and Nutrient-Dense Foods Over Junk

Along with water, food often weighs down many backpacks. When it comes to food, the more preparation upfront, the less weight you’ll carry on the trail. Nutrient dense whole foods that fuel your body for the long haul should always be your go-to instead of empty calorie items (processed, boxed or packaged foods) that burn up fast and leave you unsatisfied.

Huston knows all about how to fuel your body on long expeditions:

“Out on the land, my body craves calorie-dense foods that are savory and salty…and high-calorie not-too-sweet chocolate. I’m big on real food with as little processing as possible. Fat and calorie content is a key to keeping the weight down. If a food plan can average around 5 calories per gram, you will get a lot of food value for relatively little weight. It takes a lot of label reading and planning, but it pays off big time in nourishment, weight and space savings. Chunks of high-quality parmesan cheese are one of my all-time favorite backcountry snacks and dinner add-in.”

Some other high-calorie whole food options great for backpacking include macadamia and pecan nuts, smoked salmon, oats and honey.

Additionally, another way to cut weight related to food is by fishing and foraging for food items. A bit of line and hook weighs very little and can yield a massive caloric reward if you’re backpacking near lakes and streams where fish are abundant.

Carry Emergency Water, Filter the Rest

Depending on the location and time of year, you might be able to get your cooking water (and possibly even drinking water) from lakes, rivers and streams along your route. This saves a ton of weight and as Huston mentioned, offers another way to engage with your environment. With some research and planning, you can replace heavy water with a filtration bottle, bag and or straw.

That said, it’s always wise to carry emergency drinking water in case your water sources end up not being potable. The MYSTERY RANCH COULEE 40 is reservoir compatible and provides exterior stretch-woven pockets for carrying water filtration bottles. A backpack that allows for versatility also allows you to lighten your load.

Lay It All Out

When asked to relate one fail-safe method for lightening your pack, MYSTERY RANCH’s Senior Product Developer, Erin Moffett, is a fan of a gear layout and tapping into your inner minimalist.

“Bring way less than you want and think you need. I grab everything that I want, lay it out, and then pare it down to what I actually need. I’ve never regretted it.​​​”

From professional mountain climbers to weekend warriors, pictures of gear organized and laid out around a pack are commonplace in the outdoor community because this method works. Laying all of your gear out gives you a great visual of the weight you’ll actually be carrying and allows you to trim the fat.



Let Your Pack Lighten the Load for You

The 3.8 lb MYSTERY RANCH COULEE 40 uses an elite yoke and mainframe system that transfers weight off

of the shoulders and back and onto the hips This allows your legs to do the heavy lifting, making the load-

bearing experience much more comfortable. Huston utilizes this feature for many of his adventures.

“The COULEE 40 fights above its weight class and shines in all sorts of tasks. It’s basically a smaller version of a full-size backpacking pack. I love its versatility and load carriage. It’s comfortable and functional, fully loaded, or mostly empty. The yoke and stay system do such a good job of transferring weight onto the hips. To me, it feels like a mid-sized pack should feel: stable, comfortable and connecting the load with the body in the right places. The big external pockets are super useful catchalls.”

That said, if you’re hesitant to go ultralight or minimalist, the right pack ensures that you don’t have to in order to be comfortable.

Gain Skills, Not Stuff

Often backpackers, mainly those new to the outdoors, will load up on “stuff” rather than skills, wrongly assuming that more gear will save them in sketchy situations. While tools are necessary in the backcountry and can certainly assist in a dangerous scenario, they are not a replacement for hard-earned skills that can be gained through various training courses. Huston relates the indispensable value of life-long learning for the outdoors:

“The skills and knowledge from outdoor courses don’t weigh a thing and have so much value in the backcountry and at home. From properly managing cuts to hygiene to hydration to burns etc.… wilderness first aid courses will make any wilderness experience safer and more enjoyable. Instead of suffering through an injury or ailment, you’ll have a much better chance of handling the situation.”

Some courses that are beneficial to serious backpackers include Wilderness First Responder Training, avalanche skills training, orienteering, topographic map training and training in foraging for edible and medicinal plants.

Take It or Leave It?

Cutting weight is valuable, but certain items should never be abandoned.

When asked to name one item you should NEVER leave behind to save on weight, Huston prefers to go old school with a paper map:

“Maps provide a sense of place that isn’t possible when looking at a screen. I love maps!”

Not only are maps lightweight and easy to store in a plastic bag to protect them from the elements, but a map won’t fail you. Phones malfunction, batteries die, and GPS navigation systems can be heavy. A map is as functional and as effective as the person reading it.

We also asked Huston and Moffett whether leaving behind a celebratory drink or guilty-pleasure snacks is worth it to save on weight.

According to them, these items are absolutely necessary. Their reasoning includes the mental and emotional boost, often critical to completing a long and grueling day on the trail.

Some highly recommended trail drinks and snacks include a flask filled with tequila or aged scotch, a bag of potato chips, maybe some homemade jerky or whatever booze/fuel combo required to complete the hike.

Can’t find the COULEE 40 on our website? Try your nearest retailer here.