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Three ways to get your backcountry hunting setup lighter

Backpack hunting is one of those things that I fantasized about for many years before actually doing it. The whole experience sounded epic and was something I truly wanted to immerse myself in. Once I did, though, one of the first things that went through my mind was, "Man, how can I get this pack more lightweight?" As I made my way into my camp, I couldn't help but think about having to pack a deer out as well as this hunk of a load I already had. By getting more lightweight, I could conserve my strength, energy, and not get beaten up by only hauling my gear. Here are a few things I've learned that have helped me with lightening the load.

Research and know your gear

This is a huge thing that I think many folks might let slip through their hands. It involves a little work beforehand, but I promise you that it is worth it in the end. Spend time before your hunt to really test out the gear you plan to use. By doing this, you are going to be able to make judgment calls on what is truly going to work for you. By not doing this, I feel like one will end up with a lot of "what if" items, which we will discuss a bit further down in this article.


Cooking up food in the backcountry

All photo credits: Josh Kirchner

Food is just plain heavy. I average between 1.5 lbs and 2 lbs a day for food. Say I am going on a 10-day hunt and that means I will have to bring about 20 lbs of food. This, of course, will decrease throughout the trip. For that reason, I started keeping a journal of what I ate and didn't eat during the day in order to really know how much food I needed back there. I surely didn't want to be carrying more than I needed. You can count calories all you want, but all of us are different. I find that I function pretty good on about 2,500 calories per day on a hunt. For some, I've heard of them needing 3,500 to 4,000 calories back there. All of that aside, you should know what you need on a hunt—not what works for someone else.

Sleeping bag

Backcountry sleep system

The fear of getting cold through the night is something I have wrestled with in the past and still do from time to time. I've been there and it isn't fun when you are trying to run in place inside your sleeping bag to generate warmth in the middle of the night. For that reason, knowing what my bag and sleeping system, in general, can handle is huge for me. I definitely pay attention to sleep ratings, but use them as a general number really. The real test will be getting the bag into the country and seeing/feeling firsthand what it can handle. I've found that these ratings tend to be about 10 degrees or so lower than what they actually are. However, that is just me. Some of us sleep hotter than others. The reason I mention the ratings is that a 0-degree bag is going to be heavier than a 30-degree bag. Why pack the extra weight if you aren't going to need it? It will not only save weight on your back, but it will also save room in your pack.

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Backcountry campsite at night under the stars

How lightweight you get with a shelter is going to be a direct reflection of how much living space you want and/or what you are comfortable with using in general. For instance, maybe you don't care at all about living space and you are completely fine with using something like a bivy sack. That would be the most lightweight setup you could go with short of just a cowboy camp with no shelter. I know some folks that do this if the weather permits. A bivy sack might not be a great option if you are claustrophobic, though. On the flip side, you could bring too much shelter, have plenty of room, but be carrying around unnecessary weight. I like to go with something in the middle and prefer either a single wall one person trekking pole shelter or an ultralight two-person double wall tent. One of them weighs a shade over a pound and the other is 3 lbs. Again, the only way to find out what is going to work for you is to actually try it out.


First Lite clothing for backcountry hunting

Knowing what your clothing can handle is pretty similar to the sleeping bag section we talked about earlier. Every time I am out and am trying out a new piece of clothing, I take note of the temperatures for the day so that I can better judge what exactly this piece can be used for. I never like to go overkill with clothing either—just like the bag. I try to avoid packing base layer bottoms and will bring long socks instead. I'll go with a puffy type of jacket instead of a soft shell because the puffy packs better and has a better weight to warmth ratio. Build a layering system that you can trust and know it inside and out. Every time that I have gone overkill on clothing, I've ended up not using the extra stuff.

Do you really need that?

Leaving the comforts of gear at home

The comforts of home and tricks our minds play on us will cause us to bring more than we need. It has been referred to often as "packing your fears." I remember how I used to carry not only a handgun fully loaded, but I would also carry a full speed loader with six more bullets. Why? Maybe in case, the zombie apocalypse started up and I needed to go into Walking Dead mode? Things like this can end up weighing your pack down a ton in the end. A little something here and a little something there adds up over time. So ask yourself this: Do you really need that? Or are you just bringing it out of habit? Do you use the item often? Of course, there are going to be exceptions here like a first aid kit. I hope none of you ever have to use one, but we all need to have one. How about that energy block? Most times, I don't bring one. Instead, I run my phone in airplane mode. I can get about five days on a fully charged phone like this. If my trip will be longer than that, I'll pack the energy block. If not, why have it? One of the easiest ways to make your pack lighter, that doesn't involve spending money, is to just not bring something.

Throw money at it

Of course, another easy way to get your backcountry setup lighter is to throw money at it. You can get pretty lightweight if you've got a heavyweight wallet. Backcountry gear is not cheap, though, and you can bet your behind that you will be spending thousands of dollars in the name of lightweight gear. It took me years to acquire gear items here and there because of this. I didn't start out just going and buying everything that I needed. My bills would have never gotten paid if I did that. By no means am I saying that you need the latest and greatest of everything out there. In the beginning, I just made it work and used what I had. Each year that went by, I'd acquire something new to lighten my load. Being crafty and having a minimalist mindset will get you more lightweight than emptying your wallet. Yet, having a sleeping bag that weighs 4 lbs versus one that weighs a pound is pretty awesome. It's also an investment.

In closing

Backpack loaded for a hunt

Nowadays, when I am heading into camp, I'm not dreading the weight on my back. I'm looking forward to more! Getting more lightweight is really about forethought, being creative and being honest with oneself. Having items that serve multiple purposes so you don't have to bring multiple items is great. Really give your gear list some thought and analyze what you can do without and what you absolutely need. There is no shame in bringing some comfort items either. Heck, I bring an inflatable pillow with me. I am always looking to soak up more knowledge so if you have any tips that have helped you in getting your backcountry setup lighter, the mic is in your hands.

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Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 02-14-2019 05:19:48 am

@Jon U.

Thanks for the tip Jon! I'll keep that in mind!

Bendrix B. - posted 1 year ago on 01-27-2019 04:58:27 am
Rochester, MA

If you want to know what packing light can truly be read the journals of P.G. Downs, who traveled allo over the Canadian arctic by canoe. He was a true minimalist, and made use of small game and fish to supplement his store of staples.

Knowing local edible plants can shave lbs off the load. Many plants are bitter, but hunger will take care of your refined taste preferences. Food can be cooked without pots and pans, even greens, which are wonderful just scorched or wilted by holding them near fire. Living off the land hard core is not for everyone and not even possible above certain elevations, but its fun, and can lighten the load.

But never skimp on a windproof, rainproof shelter and warm clothing. Those cannot be scrounged up and the lack of them could kill you.

Jay K. - posted 1 year ago on 01-21-2019 06:47:14 am
Dallas, TX

Good article. Packing your fears is a very real thing. For me food is my biggest issue. I consistently bring more food and water than I need. I'm much better at estimating that than I used to be. But, I have carried Clif bars all over the woods and right back to the truck.

I would also suggest that folks consider a quilt. Not only are the usually lighter, they are much more comfortable IMO. Especially if you move around a lot at night like I do. I have a Katabatic Palisade and it is fantastic. They aren't cheap. But, the quality is very high and I expect I will have it for 15 years.

Jon U. - posted 1 year ago on 01-21-2019 06:05:28 am

Hi Josh, you can swap that style Nalgene bottle for the HDPE version, same dimensions and capacity just different material, and go from 6.2 oz to 3.5 oz for $7 spent.

Matt E. - posted 1 year ago on 01-16-2019 06:37:21 pm

Nice article and some good points. Some things I have found in the last couple years early season mule deer hunting up around 12K:
1) Colgate wisps for touthbrushes. Weigh almost nothing and I use one for 2 or 3 days.
2) Instead of a pillow a take my Kuiu super down and put it in one of my stuff sacks. You can really make a nice soft bulky pillow and add other clothing in the center and wrap the super down around it to give is a substantial firm core. I have found this to be larger and more comfortable than any camp pillow you can buy.
3) I have eliminated the camp towel and soap. Wear merino and get the wind in your favor. No upside in trying to stay clean. I do bring one small wipe per day to keep my backside clean. Can take them in dry and wet them with your water to keep it light until game time.
4) Definitely share gear with a hunting partner and share food as mentioned previously.
5) Get the big can of MH granola, blue berries and dehydrated milk and put it in one bag, a cup or so per day. I then use my dinner bag from the night befor and put a little in there for breakfast. Cuts down on wasted space and all the extra bags. Used to take a variety for breakfast, but this is a great calorie option and more efficient.
6) Over the years I have really paired down to one set of clothes and one extra pair of underwear, socks and merino t-shirt more for safetly to get into something dry if need be. Nothing else I'm not wearing or gonna layer on makes it in the pack.

My pack is less than 30 pounds before water and my bow.

Jordan B. - posted 1 year ago on 01-16-2019 04:42:53 pm

I have archery elk hunted with several small groups in the backcountry over the last five or six great way to save weight is to work as a team. By this i mean, coordinate every item taken so as to not have duplicates in the team. We plan to hunt two guys to a group so we typically leave our spike camp in the morning with one kill kit. Two stoves aren't needed, multiple water filtration devices haven't been necessary, we'll boil if we get in a bind, two guys per mountain house meal has served us well as dinner (If you're still hungry snack on misc items) Removing some of the extra pockets, straps, etc off my pack saved me some major weight. And like Josh said knowing the limits of your clothing and personal comfort needs can help avoid over packing due to fear.

Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 01-16-2019 08:57:46 am

Valid point Scotty!

Scotty M. - posted 1 year ago on 01-16-2019 08:16:39 am
Rowlett, TX

Just a thought. Unless you are just leaving stuff behind, it's a lot cheaper to remove a pound for yourself than it is to remove a pound from your pack. I know I definitely arrived in elk camp heavy last September, and it had nothing to do with my pack.

Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 01-16-2019 05:43:25 am

Great insight Sean!

Sean B. - posted 1 year ago on 01-16-2019 05:26:22 am

Some good points there. With the food, what I've found to save both weight and space with the freeze-dried meal pouches is to at least open them up and let the air out of them.(The ones that aren't already vacuum sealed.) You can roll them up pretty tight this way. The serving sizes are usually more than I need in one meal so I can divide one pouch into 2 meals and use quart size freezer Ziplock bags. They've held the boiling water to hydrate the meals just fine for me. This only saves a few ounces, but when trying to go ultralight and still carry a small stove, it's a good option.