Lightweight Backpacking Defines Distance?

Hi there, Friend. So which kind of backpacker are you… an Extended Trip Backpacker? An Occasional Backpacker? Or, are you a Lightweight Backpacker?


This is the question that REI poses to would-be customers on their their new Backpacking Collections feature. I like REI, really, I do, but this is troubling. Admittedly one can throw together a pretty decent lightweight kit using only REI as a source, why someone would choose to do that, I don’t know, but it’s for sure possible and might even be a somewhat reasonably affordable way to go about getting outfitted. So here’s my problem, what does carrying less weight have to do with how far, how long, or how often one goes into the wilderness?

I’ve never been thrilled with the idea of labeling our backpacking ‘style’ by some arbitrary base weight number, but I accept that it does assist with discussion and analysis of how to improve (read: lighten) our burden. Before I moved from light-conventional to ultralight (I range between an ultralight and light baseweight usually) I would sort of chuckle at people who spent time counting ounces, of course that was before I started doing it too. When you can’t beat em, join em. What I realized is, it’s not OCD backpackers who do this, it’s being smart about backpacking. But why do we even do this backpacking-thing in the first place?

I’ve never met anyone who just wanted to carry a bunch of weight on their back and walk around… well I have run across more than a few people out there on the trail who made me wonder if that was the case… but I digress. So why backpack? There can only be one answer: to spend time in the wilderness. There may be many reasons we want to do that, but our backpacks are just the tool to get us out there. Thus, we arrive back at the REI question, ‘Which kind of backpacker are you?’, to which I would provide the following choices instead of their supplied ones:

  • A smart one
  • A dummy
  • I don’t care

I mean, really, are there ‘kinds’ of backpackers? If we substitute ‘backpacker’ for ‘person who spends time in the wilderness’, REI’s categories no longer make any sense (they’re nonsense in fact!). I’m not naive to the fact that this is just marketing from REI, of course. However, I don’t like the message it sends suggesting that a light pack is for a niche group. This implies a ‘lightweight’ pack is not for the extended trip backpacker, nor the occasional backpacker. So what does that leave, short trips and avid backpackers? Rubbish, man!

I hope this marketing move doesn’t discourage anyone new to backpacking from seeking out lightweight gear, or convince them they need a huge pack and heavy gear. There’s really no reason to carry extra weight, unless there is a reason, I mean a real one. The longer the trip, the larger pack of course, but aside from that, nothing else should change. Maybe an extra change of clothes, more food obviously, and definitely extra spirits, but we’re talking consumables now, not baseweight. The frequency of how often we do the backpacking has nothing to do with pack weight. I don’t know why REI thinks so. There are so many wrong messages in this simple campaign; I can’t help but shake my fist at the computer screen.

Five Days in Lassen... 25 pound packs (including food)
Five Days in Lassen... 25 pound packs (including food)

In closing, I would like to say first, thank you for entertaining this rant. If your head is nodding in agreement then you have already got this figured out for yourself; celebrate with a beer or tasty snack. For those who are getting into backpacking or those of you who haven’t really given gear a lot of thought – give it some thought. It’s easy to walk into a store and buy what fits, but building a kit that way is no smarter than following along with these nonsense categories designed to help you select gear. Instead, use real metrics. You know, things like what kind of weather you’ll face, if you’ll be camping above or below tree line, on the snow, what kind of fuel you’ll need/have access to, whether or not you need to carry a bear canister, the weight of each item you’re considering, etc, etc, etc. If you’re not sure what you need, seek out a forum (a few are listed below). With a little effort anyone can put together a smart, lightweight kit for any hike, any place, any time. Hike It. Like It.

Forum Resources:
Backpacking Light Forums
Backpacker Magazine Forums
Whiteblaze – AT Hiking Community
Hammock Forums

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava


  1. Jason
    July 18, 2012

    I have just gotten into backpacking after decades of not doing it – so I have had to purchase all new gear. I did a ton of research – and have purchased gear based on weight. price, and comfort. Honestly, it is very easy to be comfortable AND lightweight – AND on a budget. My baseweight is under 10 lbs for cool weather and not skimping on safety of comfort.

    I sincerely doubt anyone would want to start backpacking and think – gee I think I would rather carry 45 lbs on my back than 25 and not be any more comfortable!

    • Jacob D
      August 15, 2012

      Hi Jason. Thanks for comment. I couldn’t agree more. Comfortable and lightweight really go hand in hand. Although I have known a few people to be ‘stoopid’ lightweight to the point of sacrificing comfort and potentially safety for the sake of saving ounces (or grams). It goes both ways I think.

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