Am I wearing lead shoes? Legs burning, lungs burning, each step is difficult, each step saps my strength and makes me weaker. Why is this so hard??? I’m in great shape….or at least I thought I was!
If you’ve never experienced a moment like this then you’ve never experienced heavyweight backpacking at high altitude. The simple fact is that more gear adds more weight, and more weight slows you down and weakens you. We are going to examine how to assemble an ultralight backpack hunting kit that will allow you to shed weight, increase overall comfort, reduce physical exertion, and travel more efficiently in search of game.
Face it, lightening your pack allows you to go further with less effort. Going light is more enjoyable. You can conquer steeper terrain and longer distances while moving faster if you go lighter. The fact is, if you carry a 9 lb pack, a 7 lb sleep system and a 10 lb tent then you are not hunting ultralight and the movement and the terrain you can conquer is inhibited by what you carry.
To be considered lightweight for most activities you should be able to get under 25 lbs excluding food, water, and weapon. If you are over 40 lbs you are too heavy for all but long trips in the poorest conditions.
The simplest way to lighten your load is to pack fewer items. Do you really need a GPS, a phone and two cameras? Experience builds confidence, and confidence allows you to strip away gear until you’re left with only the essentials. In other words, if you’re new to mountain travel you will likely be carrying more weight because that extra gear gives you peace of mind. The best way to gain the experience that allows you to trend lighter is to backpack in the off seasons.
The second easiest way to lighten your load is to get dual function from a few items, thus reducing the amount of items (as an example a smart phone is a camera, a video camera, and several other items in one). After the amount of gear has been reduced, the next step is to attack the weight of the gear itself.
When lightening your gear, you must allocate weight wisely. There are some items that make more sense to go lighter than others. The first place to reduce weight is your pack, if you can maintain the required capability. The reason for reducing pack weight first is that you are almost always wearing your backpack. Wearing a 9 lb backpack constantly will sap your strength at a rate that is three times faster than a 3 lb pack.
Sleep gear, shelter, and camping gear may be left at a camp or carried, depending on trip and style. The last place I would recommend reducing weight is in the sleep system. The sleep system is your last line of defense. If a storm rolls through and you get soaked and cold climbing into a warm sleeping bag or quilt can prevent a lot of misery.
The Big Three consists of your Pack, Shelter and Sleep System. Outside of weapon and optics these will usually make up the bulk of your weight. Of these, reducing pack weight is of the highest priority, simply because the pack is always worn. The sleep system and shelter may be with you, or they may be left at camp.
With the great hunting packs on the market today there is no reason to dedicate more than 4 lbs to a backpack. Years ago a 6-10 lb hunting pack was the norm, but times have changed and technology advances have increased capability in ultralight platforms to the point that heavy packs are becoming obsolete.
An excellent reason to not dedicate more than 4 lbs to a backpack is that the pack will be light enough to use for many other purposes. Summer backpacking, overnights, day hikes, and gear intensive trips are all possible with the same pack. A nice carrying 3 -4 lb pack is perfect for year round use, while a 6 lb or heavier pack will sit in the closet until hunting season.
We have a preference for Paradox Packs, and generally carry setups that weigh 3.5 lbs or less. These packs have efficient back country travel and reducing weight as a core principle. They are designed so that ultralight loads are carried in comfort, but due to its’ unique design we believe it is the most comfortable meat packing backpack ever designed.
Some additional features that make these packs so attractive is the packbag fabric. X-Pac fabric is forever waterproof and will gain very little water weight in rainy conditions, where many other fabrics are known to gain a pound or more when wet. A waterproof packbag eliminates the need for a heavy raincover, and limits the need for waterproof stuffsacks for gear inside the bag. Simply put, it’s a win/ win for backcountry usage.
Stone Glacier Packs are also sub 4 lbs in many configurations and we hear they are capable as well. For a less expensive alternative, you can take a Kelty Cache Hauler external frame, strip it down, and pair with a lightweight dry bag to get sub 4 lbs.
If you are carrying a pack over 6 lbs you are carrying far more weight than you need and the weight is better used elsewhere.
With sleep gear you have a few basic choices. First down or synthetic? High quality down is always lighter and will offer better longevity. Synthetics will dry faster and perform better when wet.
The second choice is quilt or full sleeping bag. Western Mountaineering makes excellent, long lasting sleeping bags and you can have a bag rated to the teens for under 2 lbs. They are not for the thrifty however. High quality down quilts are available from several manufacturers such as Enlightened Equipment and many lightweight choices exist for the more budget minded consumer. Other options are to buy used, or buy a step down from the premium manufacturers (such as Marmot sleeping bags).
Sleeping pads can weigh anywhere from 8 ounces for a basic CCF to a couple pounds for a nice inflatable. A lightweight closed cell foam is cheap and light, but air pads are more comfortable. The Exped Downmat and the Thermarest Neoair are top end airpads, and the Thermarest Prolite torso length paired with an ultralight foam pad makes a good lightweight system.
Tents come in all sizes and flavors. You can go with a basic lightweight tarp and have a lot of flexibility for about 1 – 1.5 lbs. You can also go complete four-season double wall and be nearing 10 lbs with room for two or three guys. The lightest options are tarps and floorless single wall designs made from lightweight fabric. Cuben fiber fabrics, make it possible to have a sub one pound shelter, however cuben is not for the budget conscious.
Many backpackers prefer the extra security provided by a fully enclosed shelter such as a Tarp Tent. These will weigh more than a tarp or small single wall shelter and be more confining but provide a fully enclosed shelter with flooring. Condensation can be a problem with any single wall shelter (although with tarps it is not much of an issue). For those that want a full enclosure and do not want to deal with condensation, a fully enclosed double wall tent is the best choice. These will be more confining, and generally will weigh anywhere from 3 lbs up.
Large Tipi and wood stove configurations provide a veritable home in the back country, but are not as light as the more minimal setups. A 6 person tipi, with a wood stove, will weigh close to 7 lbs or more however it is capable of sleeping three and gear in relative comfort, and as the days get short and night time temperatures low, the comfort they provide is worth the weight.
We prefer tarps and smaller shelters for summertime conditions, but once the temperatures get below freezing and the nights get long, a tipi and stove combination is the way to go, as long as you are comfortable with the floorless concept.
Water Purification: Water purification is highly conditions dependent. The lightest is tabs, followed by filters such as the Sawyer. If snow is on the ground, melting snow is convenient. Filters, may be prone to freezing so care is needed. Generally, if you have a clean source then tabs are fine, but if drinking water with some funk to it then a filter (perhaps with a tab backup) is preferred.
Knives:. Havalon knives are the standard for lightweight, sharp game care. They flat out
work and are lightweight. As effective as Havalon knives are, I do have a couple issues. First, they are scary sharp and changing blades in the field, sometimes feels like a
disaster waiting to happen. A mistake with a Havalon could be costly. Second, I suspect (actually I know) that some of the blades get left near kill sites, which in our opinion, is akin to leaving razor blades in the forest. I know these weren’t left intentionally, but it does happen. For a cleaner solution, I really like the Kestrel Knives. The Kestrel Knives are exceptionally lightweight, and will do the job well.
It’s often costly to save weight on a rifle or scope, and this is one area you really want a lot of comfort and confidence in your gear. I use a Tikka T3 Lite, as it is pretty light, budget oriented and is very accurate out of the box.. Many people really like the Kimber rifles and in a .308 Caliber they are light and a very capable mountain rifle. Some people are willing to carry the extra weight to have their favorite rifle in a 7 Mag and that is fine as well. Pick what you are comfortable with and what will make a clean humane kill.
For bowhunters, there are other considerations. You need sufficient energy and arrow weight for the animal you are hunting. Also, heavier bows are generally more stable and accurate on longer shots, but the bow weight will be in your hand every step of the way and can really wear you down. An arrow of 450-460 grains out of a 60-70 lb modern compound is a good recipe for elk, but that setup may weigh 7.5 – 8 lbs. Recurves and longbows can cut that weight in half, but effective range is also limited.
I require a range finder, but above that I’m flexible on optics. I do use a snipe pod tripod (some people like them some don’t). I like the snipe pod because it gives me a decent bipod and a tripod for a lightweight spotting scope in one lightweight unit. The snipe pod, is not a good choice for large spotting scopes, but for smaller spotters or binocs it works well.
I prefer a lightweight spotting scope and seldom have a need for a larger spotting scope. Many people don’t use a spotter at all, while some carry extensive large optics (which of course has a large weight penalty). I prefer the lighter weight optics and the ability to not be hindered by the extra weight. Even without the lightest rifle, scope and optics , I am under 10 lbs for a scoped rifle, range finder, bipod / tripod, lightweight spotter and small binocs. I could probably get this to 9 lbs for an additional $1500.
Other hunters feel that binoculars are an absolute necessity, and the better the glass the better able they are to spot game. The benefit of good glass is appreciated more for spot and stalk style hunting, or for the trophy hunter, but optic weight needs to be balanced with the capability it provides.
- Paradox Evo, 4800 Roll Top and Base Talon UL Frame and Fabric: 3 lbs 2 ounces - $470
- Lil’ Bug Out Base in Cuben: 10.2 ounces – $400
- Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20 Degree quilt (800 Fill) : 24 ounces – $350
- EVA Sleeping Pad: 8 ounces – $20
Total Weight: 5 lbs 12 ounce Cost $1240
- Paradox Evolution, with 4800 in Stone Gray and Base Talon 3 lbs 11 ounces – $500
- 6 Person Tipi UL Fabric and SXL Titanium stove 7.5 lbs – $1200
- Western Mountaineering Versalite 10 Degree 2 lbs – $600
- Exped Synmat UL 1.5 lbs – $180
(Ideal for late season when snow is on the ground. Great to split between 2 – 3 guys)
Total Weight: 14 lbs 11 ounces Cost $2,480.
Assuming the weight of the tent and stove combination is split 3 ways the weight of this setup is under 10 lbs and provides a lot of capability and comfort.
It is possible to scour Ebay and get a more cost conscious setup.
- Dana Design Terraplane 7.5 lbs (cost $200)
- 10 Degree Synthetic sleeping bag 4.5 lbs ($150.00)
- Thermarest Ridgrest sleeping pad 1 lb ($25.00)
- Used Double wall Tent of decent quality 5 – 7 lbs ($200)
Total weight: 18 -20 lbs Cost $575.00
To save weight, you can take a Kelty Cache Hauler and remove the load shelf, and use a dry bag to get in the sub 4 lb pack range. You can pick up high quality used sleeping bags via Ebay for roughly 50 -65 percent of the new cost. Keep in mind, the better quality goose down sleeping bags should function well if they have been properly cared for while many synthetic sleeping bags have a limited life span and will not be as warm a few years after purchase. The Thermarest Ridgrest and similar pads are inexpensive and will last a long time, the sacrifice is in sleeping comfort. Tents, you can scour classifieds or Ebay for decent quality used tents. You will not have the late season comfort of a heated shelter, or the weight savings of the latest Ultralight Fabrics but you will have a functional shelter.
To better assess and hone your kit, do a few summertime backpacking trips. There is nothing like practice and use to find what you like and what works best for you. While the cost of the latest and best quality UL gear is higher than a lot of normal usage gear, keep in mind that it is designed specifically for that usage and that it is still a significant savings over hiring an outfitter (although the outfitter will cook for you and point you to the animals).
I’m a gear user, not a collector. That is in my mind an important distinction. Gear is not a status symbol. It is simply a tool that allows me to pursue the activities that I love in more comfort, safety, and with less expenditure of energy. Whatever your pursuits may be – hunting, fishing, peak bagging, backpacking, or general hiking, trending toward a lighter skin out weight will help to ease your suffering, and lighten up those lead shoes.