Amy McCarthy hikes in the Absaroka mountains in 2013. McCarthy goes light with her gear to allow her to do long backpacking trips on the weekend. (Photo by Forrest McCarthy – click to enlarge)
Amy McCarthy hikes in the Absaroka mountains in 2013. McCarthy goes light with her gear to allow her to do long backpacking trips on the weekend. (Photo by Forrest McCarthy – click to enlarge)

Lightweight backpacking: Go farther with a smaller backcountry pack

By Kelsey Dayton
— June 24, 2014

On my first big backcountry trip at 19, a friend and I explored the canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah for five days. We loaded our packs to about one-third of our body weights before packing the water we’d need for desert hiking. Those were some heavy packs.

Kelsey Dayton

We recently looked back at pictures from that trip. Aside from the fact I was hiking in shiny basketball shorts and an oversized cotton t-shirt, I noticed I still have, and use, most of the same gear. Maybe, I thought, it’s time for an upgrade?

For years, I didn’t care about weight and even prided myself on my ability to keep up while lugging around such a heavy pack. But I’ve gotten slower with age and injuries, and time demands mean I often want need to cover more ground at a quicker pace. That’s hard to do weighted down with an unnecessarily heavy load.

A blog post by Amy McCarthy on light weight backpacking for women caught my eye. McCarthy is the ultimate weekend warrior, spending her weekdays as executive director of the Teton Raptor Center in Jackson and her days off traversing on and off trail through rugged places like the Wind River Mountains. She’s not quite as dedicated as extreme minimalists in weighing each item she takes (she doesn’t even own a scale), but she will share a toothbrush with her husband.

If I’m going to continue having epic adventures, I realized I’d need to start making the shift to lighter and better gear. I ask McCarthy for advice on moving more efficiently in the backcountry. For information on specific gear and women’s clothing brands, check out her blog post.

When did you start going light?

In the last five years. Looking back on what I wore and what I had when I initially started roving around in the Tetons my first summers here, I had more than I needed, (but) I wasn’t ever the person who had a dozen things dangling offer her pack.

Why did you decide to start lightening your load?

Now that I’m a weekend warrior, in order to have the level of adventure and cover the distance I want, it’s imperative to go light – but not at the expense of safety. … I really savor weekend escapes as overnights when I get them. But, in order to cover the ground, I just can’t be carrying a really big pack.

How did it change the way you move in the backcountry?

It’s faster and you are more comfortable. Your hips aren’t sore. If you aren’t loading up your back and your pack then you, in theory, should be able to cover some more distance, and that’s the part I love. I love a great traverse across a mountain range and that means a lot of up and down and a lot of variable terrain.

What is the biggest weight waste you see or hear people using?

I think there are three principles that you need to walk through as you are packing. No. 1: What can I do without? No. 2: What can I share? And No. 3: Looking toward the innovation that is out there, and these days there’s quite a lot of it. There’s so many new fabrics and designs that have really reduced weight and increased durability at the same time.

A lot of people have bigger sleeping bags than they need. It’s not necessarily heavier, but it takes up volume. I always think of it in relation to my garage: If you have the space, you’ll fill it up. So if you end up needing a bigger pack to store the essentials for your travel, you just start filling it up. It’s a great, great challenge to try to pack in a smaller pack what you need. Do you need to bring a whole kitchen into the backcountry? No, you do not. I travel sometimes with a Jet Boil and a spoon. But if you have the whole spice kit and plate and knife and spoon, you need to stop right there. Part of some people’s backcountry experience is having an amazing meal at camp and if that is what is delightful to you, then do it. But for me it’s covering ground and

exploring and seeing more of a place, and I am better equipped to that with the less equipment I take.

What won’t you sacrifice despite thinking about weight?

Amy McCarthy hikes in the Absaroka mountains. McCarthy has made a switch to light weight gear to allow for big traverses on her weekends. (Photo by Forrest McCarthy – click to enlarge)
Amy McCarthy hikes in the Absaroka mountains. McCarthy has made a switch to light weight gear to allow for big traverses on her weekends. (Photo by Forrest McCarthy – click to enlarge)

I usually bring baby wipes on my trips and that would probably be sacrilege to anyone who truly counts their grams and weighs their packs and measures their food, but I like at the end of the day to have a wipe down.

I never go into the backcountry without something with a hood, but I still always have a hat, like a beanie. I just think they are warmer overall and when you have the big chill a hat and a hood make a difference. Around here, traveling in the Greater Yellowstone, you shouldn’t go anywhere without your hat and gloves.

Also my sleeping bag is warmer than Forrest’s (McCarthy, her husband). I greatly value warmth and I sleep colder than he does. We’ve tried quilting, but that’s where I draw the line at trying to cut weight. Basically it’s a quilt with an insulated top and a sheet on the bottom and everyone, even the dog, gets in, but its not warm enough for me. But my sleeping bag does stuff down to the size of a loaf of bread.

Light weight gear can be an investment, how can people ease into updating their equipment?

A tent is a good one to think about. You can have a lot of poles and weight and volume. We’ve switched to using a mid (style that is like a teepee), so my trekking poles, which I’m religious about using, double as my tent poles. It doesn’t have a floor which is a new experience and takes some getting used to, but especially with a dog in and out and because you aren’t enclosed you can cook in it, it is something we’ve moved to and really love.

I don’t think anyone needs to go out and dump thousands of dollars into gear, but as one looks to replace items, there are some smarter investments to make. I look at some of the packs I used for multi-day trips and the pack itself weighs six pounds. The pack I have now, I’d guess is about half a pound. If you are starting with a pack that weighs six pounds, I mean where are you going? You are starting off right off the bat with it being a heavier trip.

What is the craziest way you’ve cut weight?

I usually bring a little itty-bitty hair brush and I didn’t cut off the handle, but the handle broke off and that’s the brush I take because that’s the only part I need. In the idea of “What can I do without?” I don’t like to go without a toothbrush, but I’ll share my toothbrush with Forrest so he can shave some weight. I don’t know that I’m super wild and crazy, it just comes down to the principle of “Do I really need this?” I think that’s part of the experience and challenge when you want to go into the backcountry and you want to be safe, but have a purer experience in nature.That doesn’t mean I’ll

not take my sleeping bag, but I’m going to go with the one that weighs the least and still allows me to have a safe fulfilling experience. And then I come home and go “Yeah, this bed does feel good.”

How much does the weight of your clothing matter?

I think it should be a slight consideration. You don’t want to be bringing your super heavy down jacket. As far as what’s on your body, it’s the classic layer thing. I’m always going to have a pair of merino wool long johns. If I’m going on an overnight, I can get away with a light hiking pant because I have a layer that can go underneath when I’m cold. You probably don’t want to bring your sweats.

What big adventures do you have planned this summer?

I think my Wind River tick list will never end, because every time I go into the Winds I get to a new place and I look out and see a new place and the list gets longer. But a new area I’ve started to spend time in is the Madison Range and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, and I’ve got quite a list of places I want to get into back there. The possibilities are endless.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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2 Comments

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  1. Good point about what you want out of a trip. If cooking is your thing, by all means, take the kitchen, oven and all. If 20 miles a day is your great joy, go ultralight with shelter, food, and everything else. In my view, it can be dangerous to be a long way from the trailhead without adequate shelter and bedding. These days, you can get both for remarkably little bulk and weight, but those qualities come with a hefty price. Got to say that one of the best expenditures I’ve made in the last four years is the NeoAir XLite sleeping pad. Great insulation, most comfortable, and the thing weighs 14 ounces. Rolls up to the size of a can of beans.

  2. Great article…I’ve learned over the years that lighter is better, and it allows me a much more pleasant backpacking experience. Although, you never know what you’re going to need when you need it the most, so I do keep some of the primary survival stuff with me as well.