Backpacking Luxuries Turned Necessities and Other Tricks

Note:  I receive no compensation for any product mentioned in this post.  

Pack optimization through balance of needs and weight should be the goal for backpacking trips. But, too often we either try to go too light and cut out the things we actually need, or pack gear that goes underutilized.  We mourn the gear we left out of the pack in order to cut weight, and lament the things pull out at the end of the trip unused. I do love dialing in my pack, and tracking the ounces or even pounds that I’ve trimmed from my last trip. But I think I love the sneaky comfort items that I’ve muled in even more. I try to keep notes and an inventory of my most and least used gear, and here are some of my revelations from the last year.  Most of my camping was related to backcountry hunting, but I’m going to try and keep this list relatable to any backpacker (I’ll get some notes down about some hunting-specific revelations a little later).  Some of the items below are packable gear, and some are more along the lines of small hacks.  Also, keep in mind that I’m writing from the reference of my camping practices, which is generally a long hike in, setting up one or maybe two base camps, and mainly doing long hikes for 3-6 days, returning to base camp each night.  So, if you are mainly doing overnighters or loops, you may want to consider the specifics of your hike before filling up your pack.

New items that I will never leave behind again:

Camp chair/stool – For the last couple of years, I have watched in envy while my buddies have relaxed in ultralight camp chairs while I crouched uncomfortably over my stove each evening.  I was really tired of switching between crouching, sitting on uneven rocks, and eating dinner standing up, but even the best ultralight chairs weigh in around 1.5-2 lbs or more, and really don’t pack down as small as I would like.  But, this year, I finally found a stool that had the right balance of weight burden and comfort, and it was worth the weight (play on words there for you sharp ones).  So this year, I packed in the Micro Stool from Grand Trunk (10.6oz actual weight), which packs down very small and is the lightest seat I could find.  It only sets up to be about 10 inches off the ground, but I  actually found it to be quite comfortable (I’m 6’0″), and way better than log or stone Mother Nature had lying around.

Oil shooters with pepper chasers will cap off any meal

Extra food seasoning – I eat a lot of dehydrated meals when camping out.  They’re pretty good, but I think we can all agree they are not haute cuisine.  I don’t usually take a lot in the way of snacks, but try to rely on my main meals to get the nutrition I need.  To get the extra calories, and make things more palatable, I’ve been bringing along a couple ounces of olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes.  The olive oil makes the rehydrated food texture more relatable to a normal meal, and adds the healthy fats that the dehydrated meals usually lack.  Most of the major brands of dehydrated meals seem to utilize Indian and Latin flavor palates pretty heavily, so the red pepper is pretty compatible with most meal options.  For the sake of your gut, the last thing you want is to overdo the spiciness, but I haven’t run into that issue yet.  Red pepper flakes seem to be milder on the stomach than a lot of the other spices, but that may just be personal predisposition.  Pro Tip – Don’t worry about buying special containers for your seasoning, spent airline booze bottles are super light and work great.

My new favorite trick:

Mountain Coolers – aka pure, cold mountain streams.  Beer is delicious, but too heavy and bulky to pack in, right?  Well, at least too heavy and bulky to pack very far.  For reference, a six-pack of cans weighs in at just over five pounds.  This year, I implemented the system of packing a couple beers in just a couple miles, then dropping those beers in an icy mountain stream.  Then, on my way out, I’ve got some refreshingly cold daddy sodas to celebrate the last couple miles of a long trip through the mountains.  I realize that I’m probably not the first person to implement this strategy, but I felt smarter than the lovechild of Elon Musk and Adolf Coors when I cracked that first can of frosty suds while hiking out of the woods this fall.  As a side note, there are some precautions to take while leaving beers in stashed in the woods.  The unfiltered stream could pass along diseases on the top of the can, so take care with the water you stash in.  Also, bears have been known to enjoy chomping through unopened beers, so beware of the critters that may be poaching your cache.

Things I left behind and missed severely:

Camp shoes – Wet boots suck.  Tired feet suck.  Soft comfortable shoes are awesome.  Don’ get me wrong,  I’m very happy with the performance of my hunting boots from sunup to sundown.  But, after several warm days, feet get sweaty and tired.  Getting out of the boots and into fresh shoes in the evening is a guilty pleasure.  I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of the soft, forgiving, unsweated liners; or possibly the need for your feet to feet some subtle difference in support.  I used to go with the North Face tent mules, which are quite literally down sleeping bags for your feet, but I have graduated to slipper-shoe hybrids to walk around camp in the evenings.  I’ve currently got Teva Ember mocs (1lb 3.6oz actual weight), which have the coziness of slippers with the support of a lightweight shoe.  There isn’t too much in the way of tread, which helps reduce wear and tear on tent floors and sleeping bags (especially if you’re wearing them to bed on those extra cold nights).  The Merrel Barkley Moc is great if you want more of a shoe than a slipper, and they are very light (1lb 0.6 oz actual weight).

Chapstick – My September hunt was earlier and warmer than the last few years, and I definitely felt it in the intensity of the sun, and lack of hydration.  I typically don’t bring chapstick because I don’t like to use it hunting due to the scent that usually comes along with it.  But this year, my lips became chapped and cracked, and became a distracting and painful nag for most of a six-day trip.  It seems silly to leave such a small item behind that can have such an impact on part of your general comfort.

Items underutilized compared to years past:

Earbuds and extra phone batteries – In years past, I have usually used earbuds with my phone to listen to music while taking mid-day naps or podcasts after lights out each night.  This year, I found myself using the Kindle app on my phone more often, as well as the notes app to record my reflections of the day.  I like to use the ebooks for reading entertainment, but I also like to ability to reference field guides, trail guidebooks, or other articles on woodsmanship or hunting.  So, the moral of the story is, find some good ebooks and you won’t need the headphones.  Also, remember to utilize your phone’s power-saver function combined with airplane mode, keep your phone from being exposed to the cold too often, and your battery can last for days.

6 Lightweight Gear Upgrades

Chasing the ultralightweight savings game can be as addicting as….pretty much anything else hunting-related, and equally as expensive.  Dang, I thought I was going to come up with a sweet metaphor there.  I love getting new gear, but I’m sometimes too cheap to drop the big bucks on the hottest stuff that all the cool kids are into.  I’m not always cheap, but I prefer to think I’m putting my dollars where they can do the most damage out in the woods.  Plus, selective cheapness provides more disposable income for important things like overpriced microbrews, truck tires, and full body tattoos.  So I actually only partake in two of those three things, but feel free to substitute in your own vices.  Anyway, I’ve come up with a quick list of some of my favorite lightweight pack items.  Some are higher end and some are dirt cheap.  I hope you can find a couple to use on your next daytrip or overnighter.

*All weights listed are actual measurements unless noted otherwise.

Steripen Ultra

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The Steripen has been around for a while, but is new to me.  Not only is it 10 oz lighter than my Katadyn Hiker, but it also comes with the upside of size and time convenience as well.  What would you prefer? Slogging water for 20 minutes through a pump-style filter that takes up a quarter of your pack space, or waving a tiny lightsaber for 60 seconds.

The downside?  Unlike the pump filter, the Steripen only protects you from microorganisms.  It does not control cloudiness, chemicals, or floaters.  So make sure you have an idea of the water quality issues you may be facing before packing your gear.  It also has a vaguely similar appearance to a medical device.

Weight: 5 oz

Comparison: Katadyn Hiker – 15 oz

Hydrapak Seeker Collapsible Water Bottle (3L)

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I love this thing.  It’s lighter than a Camelbak, and you don’t have to sip through those annoying rubber straws.  It’s not rigid like a conventional water bottle, so finding a spot inside (or strapped outside) of an overfull pack is much easier.  The lack of a hose and the wide-mouth design make it much easier to clean and keep sanitary as well.  It’s quieter than a conventional water bottle too, since you can purge out the air to eliminate the ‘sloshing’ when the bottle is less than completely full.  That’s always been one of my pet peeves when trying to slink through the woods as quietly as possible.

Downside?  Like the Camelbak, it’s got that plastic taste.

Weight: 3.3 oz

Comparison: Camelbak 3L reservoir – 8 oz (claimed)

 

Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack (35L)

OR Ultralight Dry Sack 35L lemongrass

How many packs do you have already?  If you’re like me, you’ve got at least one for week-long hunts, and one for day hunts, or maybe one or two that are supposed to be for both but really don’t work for either.  I use these dry sacks to add versatility to my frame pack, and have eliminated the need for a daypack for single day out-and-back hunts.  These are actually pretty damn reasonable for an “ultralight” labeled item, as I’ve actually found them for much less than other conventional dry bags.  For the burden of a couple extra ounces, my Eberlestock Mainframe pack now has the convenience, organization, and protection of a fully waterproof daypack, while still having the frame to haul meat.  Grab a couple different sizes to keep you organized for various hunting trip needs.

Downside? The material for these bags is very thin and could have durability issues, depending on where you hunt and what you’re crawling through in the field.  I’ve used them for several years and haven’t had any problems.

Weight: 3.2 oz

Comparison:  There are tons of dry sacks out there, and typical weights for 35L are around 8-10 oz or more

Black Ovis Lightweight Game Bags

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Although not cheap, they are probably the most reasonable in the lightweight game bag department.  The old standard was the Alaska Game Bag, and I still keep those around back at the truck just in case I need some backups.  The Black Ovis large bag kit comes with four bags, gloves, a lightweight tarp, a roll of flagging tape, and a mesh carry bag.  Pulling out the tarp, gloves, and flagging tape dropped the weight by a few ounces down to 13 oz.  But, bigger than the weight savings are the space savings.  The Alaska Bags are difficult to fit into a gallon-sized ziplock, and the Black Ovis bags are a little larger than a fist.

Downside?  I haven’t found any issues with them yet.

Weight: 13 oz

Comparison: Alaska Game Bags – 1 lb 8 oz

Nemo Fillo Elite Pillow: 2.8 oz

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This is a real pillow.  I have decided a pillow is a luxury that I will not forego.  I used to use the Thermarest compressible pillow, but that thing really doesn’t compress down very well, and it takes up too much valuable pack space (but it’s comfortable).  The Nemo pillow is smaller than a baseball when in its stuff sack.  It’s inflatable and has a soft, comfortable fabric surface.  Ignore the countless lightweight pillows out there on Amazon for $15.  Those feel like an old inflatable pool toy, and you would probably be more comfortable resting your head on a balled-up sweatshirt.

Downside? None found yet.

Weight: 2.8 oz

Comparison: Not using a pillow is always an option that many hunters are happy with, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Hunting is hard and strenuous, take care of your neck.

Crystal Geyser Bottled Water (or similar) (16 fl oz): 0.4 oz

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This has got to be my ultimate cheapo-yuppy-ultralight-dummy tip. The typical bottled water packaging for brands such as Crystal Geyser, Arrowhead, or any generic store water is incredibly light, since it’s supposed to be disposable, duh.  For dayhunts where I won’t need more than a couple liters, I just pack a few of these.  They can be squashed down to purge any air from the bottle too, eliminating the annoying ‘slosh’ mentioned above.

Downside?  You’re constantly buying bottled water, even though you know tap water is fine.

Weight: 0.4 oz

Comparison – Nalgene (32 fl oz): 6 oz (I used the 32 fl oz Nalgene because it is more common, even though it’s twice the volume of the disposable bottle)