Losing Some Weight

It’s not unusual for a Scout backpacker to make several major purchases just before their first major backpacking trip. When confronted with the costs, and without the time to shop around, many neophyte backpackers (or parents) look for the cheapest backpacking supplies possible, rationalizing that they can upgrade in the future if necessary. However, with backpacking, lower cost usually means lesser quality and more weight. As a result, many Boy Scouts and adult backpackers spend their second year trying to lower their pack weight so they can better enjoy the experience.

Lightning the Load: The Big Three

Since the heaviest items are the most expensive, many Scout backpackers try to lighten their loads by counting ounces on smaller cheaper things in their pack or they try leaving extra clothing, food, and equipment at home. This is a nice idea but you can’t make a big weight difference with small sacrifices. The only way to significantly lower your pack weight is to replace your backpack, tent/shelter, or sleeping system – often called the “Big Three of Backpacking.”


Your backpack is the foundation of your trail experience. They vary greatly in terms of design, support, fabric, color, and especially weight — yet many people spend almost no time in selecting the right pack for the wilderness experience they want to have. While 6-8 pound boy scouts backpacks were the norm a few years ago, there are many great packs today that weigh far less. For example, Osprey specializes in light packs and offers several models that weigh under four pounds and the basic REI Flash series comes in even lower. There are even Ultralight packs that measure their weight in ounces not pounds. So weigh your backpack and see if this is the first place you can save a few pounds.

Tents & Shelters

Most boys prefer tents and most units provide them. Typical Scouting tents are big, heavy, and not so good for backpacking, but good backpacking tents are small, frail, expensive, and not so good for teenage boys. Many Troops use tarps or even old fashioned “tube tents” to save weight and simplify the trip. They are great in good weather, especially if the mosquitoes have all died off for the season. A few have adopted “cowboy camping” and just sleep under the stars every night. If you can afford it, get a tent that weighs under three pounds. Big companies like REI, Big Agnes, and Marmot all offer lightweight tents as do specially vendors like Six Moon Designs.

Sleeping System

Most hikers carry a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Goose down bags are the smallest and lightest but many in the Scouting world avoid down bags for fear that they will get wet and lose all their insulating value. Some synthetic bags come close to down bags but they don’t stuff as small and are usually heavier. Any sleeping bag that weighs more than two pounds is probably too heavy for a serious backpacker. It is possible to carry a very lightweight sleeping bag if you also carry thermal layers in which to sleep and have a pad with a reasonable R rating. The yellow Thermarest Neo weighs in at about ten ounces and is very popular!

Adding it all Up

Adding up the “Big Three” gives you a very good idea about where to start cutting weight. With “Traditional” it’s not unusual for the “Big Three Weight” to be 18 pounds or more (this is wicked heavy). Ultra Light hikers aim for something less than five pounds for the same equipment. Most Scout backpackers want to be somewhere in the middle.

The”Big Three” are the heaviest items in your pack besides food. Set a weight goal and work towards it.

The”Big Three” are the heaviest items in your pack besides food. Set a weight goal and work towards it, even if you have to purchase used equipment.

Decide how much you want to carry and set a goal of getting there as quickly as possible. (Buy used equipment if necessary.)

The “Big Three” accounts for a lot of your pack weight, but not all of it. If you want to minimize your load, here are some additional rules for lowering what you carry:

  • Weigh everything
  • Take less stuff – go through your backpacking gear checklist and remove anything non-essential.
  • Choose equipment carefully – Emphasize multi-use items
  • Know the difference between wants and needs
  • Continually try new and lighter things – experiment on practice hikes
  • Load lightening is a gradual process of trial & error so set goals every year

For more information about Scout backpacking, visit the 50miler.com Outing Resource Center on Facebook.

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6 thoughts on “Losing Some Weight”

  1. What’s missing from your informative chart is the cost to get to those low weights. As weight goes down, cost goes up. A lot. I go as light as my wallet allows.

    The tent you show lists for $500. My extra-roomy Spitfire II weighs 4 lbs and costs $160. Saving 2 lbs costs $340 and loss of comfort overnight.

    A 30F bag can easily run $250 and you still need a 20F bag for the rest of the year. My Marmot Trestles X-long, X-wide keeps me comfy year round, weighs 4lbs and cost only $110. Saving 2 lbs costs $250 (assuming you buy a backpack bag to go along with the heavy winter bag).

    That 62l pack is nice at $190, but how are you going to put a 9in dia x 13in long bear canister in it? A Carson 80 weighs less than 2lbs more, but has much more room and costs only $110. For backpacks the problem with lower weight is not so much about cost, as capacity. Bear canisters don’t conform to backpacks.

    So saving 6 lbs will cost me about $600.

    I’d be better off losing 6lbs off myself. Actually, 36lbs would be even better.

  2. Perhaps tube tents are no longer used as much in Scouting, but they are still around. In fact REI sells them. Hard to believe they are so dangerous.

  3. A very comprehensive and well made blog. Neophyte backpackers? Sounds worse than nude backpacking…

  4. Plastic “Tube Tents” were outlawed in the Boy Scouts 20 years ago.
    Boys would tie-up one end to stay warm and dry, then someone would get the ‘bright’ idea to tie-up the other end too. Stay warmer and dryer!
    Trouble is, that eliminates all air and oxygen exchange, many times the boys would be found DEAD the next morning!
    Tube Tents — the only ‘body-bag’ you crawl in.

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