Why You Should Make a Trip Plan and Leave it with Someone for Every Trip

Most people know about Aron Ralston of “127 hours,” who cut his arm off to save his life. A major take-away from this was that he should have left a Trip Plan with a friend. Something as simple as a short note saying where he was going and what to do if he wasn’t back on time would have gotten him help far sooner than 127 hours. This is why you should make a Trip Plan (even a very short one) and leave it with someone for every backpacking trip. [Picture above is the author about 12 miles from where Aron Ralston’s arm was pinned by a loose rock.]

You think disaster won’t happen on your trip – but you might be wrong

No matter how incredibly competent you are and how meticulously you’ve prepared for your trip, an accident or emergency can happen to just about anybody, at any time.  It happened to Aron Ralston with a random loose rock. And similarly random things have happened and will happen to many others. A fluke accident, a flare up of a pre-existing medical condition, or even the odd event like an appendicitis, or acute altitude sickness, etc. can change your trip from fun to damage-control-mode in an instant.

The Life you Save Might be your Own!   or Why you Should Make a Trip Plan

If you make a Trip plan you stand a much better chance of getting help or a rescue.
And stuff can happen. Personally in the last 5 years:

  • I’ve participated in an immediate, life-threatening helicopter evacuation (not my bad).
  • Received in-field medical instruction on how to lance an abscessed tooth though the gum with a pocket knife (yes, my tooth!).
  • And locally we had a backpacker die, due in part to not having a Trip Plan and therefore, not getting rescued in time.

Finally, even if you don’t do it for yourself (or your loved ones!), make a Trip Plan as a courtesy to the Search and Rescue Personnel that may need to come look for you. These folks are mostly volunteer and it’s not respectful to have them spend countless days and hours searching for a missing person with little or no information.

What’s in this Article

The main purpose of this article is to make it fast and easy to make an effective Trip Plan. That way you’ll always do it!

What’s not in this Article

The 3 Most Important Elements for a Trip Plan

It’s far better you make short Trip Plan than to not make one at all. In that vein, a Trip Plan needn’t be a lengthy or complicated.

Here are the 3 Most Important Elements for any Trip Plan:

  1. The Route
    • Time and location of your trip start, and time and location of your trip end
    • Your route between the trip start and trip end (and where you plan to camp each day)
  2. Notifications
    • The time and method you’ll notify your trip-tracking-emergency-contact that you are out safely
    • The time your trip-tracking-emergency-contact should notify the authorities that you are a no-show/missing (providing local emergency contact info, Park, SAR, Sheriff etc. very helpful)
  3. Emergency Contact: Leave the Trip Plan with a trusted person (your trip-tracking-emergency-contact)

For Aron Ralson, communicating this minimal amount of information via an email, text or phone call to a friend (in all of 1-2 minutes) would have likely had him rescued within 24 hours.

Why You Should Make a Trip Plan

When you’re traveling off-trail in terrain like this it’s good to have a Full Trip Plan Document. On the Southern Sierra High Route. [photo Don Wilson]

Example Trip Plans – for you to fill out and use

Below is how to create your own Trip Plan from a Simple Trip Plan (“low risk” trips. e.g. hiking on the Appalachian Trail) to a Full Trip Plan (“high(er)” risk trips, e.g. dropped into Alaska by bush plane a zillion miles from anywhere). Note: Everybody has their own take on what is a risky trip. A low risk trip to one person may seem crazy risky to another person. As such, “Low Risk,” “Moderate Risk” and “High Risk” are in parenthesis for the rest of this article.

A Simple Trip Plan

When might you use a Simple Trip Plan?

As stated previously, it’s far better you make short Trip Plan than to not make one at all. But here are some instances where a Simple Trip Plan might work well:

  • Local weekend trip on good trails or other familiar, relatively safe area that you know well
  • Usually less than a day to hike out if you have a problem, and usually a lot of other hikers around
  • A more adventurous, higher risk day hike
  • Your trip-tracking-emergency-contacts know you well and know your skill-set/abilities. They are already be familiar with tracking your previous trips and use of standard communications protocols for inReach, SPOT, mobile phones etc. (So no need for a lengthy reiteration of this.)

Example Trip: Section hike of the Appalachian trail with a friend (not solo) in seasonable weather

Example of a Simple Trip Plan

The following is an example of a Simple Trip Plan. It takes the form of a short email to your trip-tracking-emergency-contacts. Obviously, if you want to include more information you can certainly use the more detailed template document, Full Trip Plan Document for Moderate to High Risk Trips (next box below), and fill it out with the information you feel is necessary and important for your trip.

To: Trip-tracking-emergency-contacts
Subject: Monitoring of our AT Section Hike, Harper’s Ferry to Harrisburg PA. Low key trip. Not expecting problems.

  • ITINERARY: May xx to May yy. Hike on the Appalachian Trail from Harper’s Ferry WV (starting evening of May xx) to Duncannon PA (late in the day May yy) where we’ll call to let you know we are out safe by dark.
  • Approx. route is mapped here: http://caltopo.com/m/xxxwe’ll be taking the inReach (in 10 min tracking mode) here https://share.delorme.com/xx and our cell phones which should have intermittent coverage most of the way.
  • If you don’t hear from us by 11pm last day (May yy) notify local authorities that we are a no-show.

[Note that this quickly covers all of the “3 most important elements for a Trip Plan” in an email format]


A Full Trip Plan for “Moderate Risk” and “High Risk” Trips

A Full Trip Plan is a lot more work! It includes things like the gear you are bringing including pictures of your shoe tread & tent; detailed information about each party member including wilderness experience, skills (including medical), personal medical history, etc.; extensive information about the communications electronics you are brining (including communication protocols between hikers and the emergency contacts), URLs for a map of the route, etc., etc. As such, you might not want to include all this information for a basic trip.

When might you use a Full Trip Plan?

The following are some things to contemplate when you decide how “risky” your trip is and how much information you want to include in your Trip Plan:

  • You are traveling solo
  • Backpacking in a more remote area that you are not as familiar with
  • A longer duration trip 4-7 days or more
  • Likely 2 or more days to hike out for help if you have a problem
  • Might have off trail travel, scrambling, skiing, technical climbing, whitewater river travel, winter conditions or other features that significantly increase risk vs. walking on good trails in fair weather
  • May use an SOS/Tracking Device (inReach or SPOT)
  • And for very remote and/or technical trips might include a Satellite Phone in your kit

“Moderate Risk” Trip Example: Week-long hike in the Sierra Nevada with a mixture of some on-trail travel and some off-trail side trips with sections of up to class 3 travel (scrambling on rocks using hands as well as feet—no rope needed).

“High Risk” Trip Example: 1) A week-long technical canyoneering trip (class 5 rock climbing) in a remote and mostly untraveled desert canyon system. 2) Getting dropped in by float plane to white water pack-raft and climb in Alaska above the Arctic Circle. In these cases there will be more detailed trip information and likely use of a Sat. Phone.

Full Trip Plan Document for Moderate to High Risk Trips – a template to fill out and use

Template document – Full Trip Plan for Moderate to High Risk TripsThis is a link. Click to open Template.

  • Note to user: This is a Template Document. Copy the text from this Google Document Template and paste it into your own document editor (MS Word, Google Docs, etc.) . Then fill it out (edit it) to contain the correct information for your trip.
  • The information in this Template is extensive and intended for a “high(er) risk” trip
  • For a more “moderate risk” trip some of this info may not be needed. Omit/modify at your discretion.
  • This covers integration of your Trip Plan with a DeLorme inReach or SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger – and also uses of a  Satellite Phone

Selecting an Emergency Contact to Give Your Trip Plan to

Here are some important factors to consider when selecting an emergency contact (trip-tracking-emergency-contact):

  • Level headed and reliable. For me this is usually a close family member or one of my trusted hiking/climbing partners. I trust them to seriously monitor my trips and in an emergency do the right thing without drama.
  • Familiarity with the area. If I am pack-rafting in Alaska I want someone that is familiar with the terrain and challenges of white water packrafting and land travel above the Arctic Circle. If I am on a Technical Canyoneering trip in Utah, I want someone experienced in canyon travel to be my emergency contact. With less specialized and technical terrain, there are far more people eligible to be emergency contacts.
  • Responsiveness. In this day and age, especially for higher risk trips we might be communicating  indirectly or directly with our emergency contact. This could be indirectly via location-check-ins or tracks from devices like a SPOT or inReach. Or it can be directly like text messages from an iReach or a call form a Sat. Phone. I want my contact to closely monitor these communications and quickly respond to things like an emergency, or if my trip track hasn’t moved in 24 hours and I haven’t notified them as to why. Or just to reply to my request for a weather update before climbing, etc.

The limitations of a Trip Plan and SOS Devices

Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a SOS Device like the DeLorme inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger is not the solution to everything. I have been in some extremely bad situations where rescue was not feasible even if I had sent out an SOS. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue. And to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing rescue in the first place. So be sensible and safe out there.

Finally, a SOS device should never be considered a license to do silly things or take unnecessary risks.

Why You Should Make a Trip Plan

A shoe tread picture for a Trip Plan Document. My Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail running shoes.


Why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking

It’s a myth that ultralight backpacking makes you cold, wet and hungry. It doesn’t. In fact, I’ll wager that with my 5 to 9 pounds of ultralight gear I’m more comfortable, sleep better, and eat better than many campers carrying 20 to 30 pounds of conventional/heavier backpacking gear. So, here are 3 Reasons why You Won’t Freeze or Starve UltraLight Backpacking.

Picture above: A 1.5 pound pyramid shelter is an excellent choice for protection from wind, rain and snow. Weighing a fraction of a conventional tent, it also has far more room to relax and spread out.

If 5 pounds sounds a little too light…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List is likely the best fit for most backpackers. So, if you want to lower your pack weight but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!

Freeze or Starve


3 Reasons why You Won’t Freeze or Starve Ultralight Backpacking.

  1. Have good camping skills: Good camping skills rule! They are far more important than the weight of your gear for keeping safe, warm and dry. And by camping skills, I don’t mean the questionable survival “skills” of reality TV—I mean the basic, garden-variety skills that every backpacker knows—like putting on rainwear or a warm jacket when needed, selecting a good campsite, and doing a decent job of pitching a Good UL Tent or Tarp/Pyramid Shelter.
  2. Take light gear, appropriate for the conditions: I pick the lightest, fully-functional gear appropriate for the actual conditions I backpack in. Light gear like:
    1. UL Backpack
    2. UL Sleeping Bag or UL Down Quilt (my favorite!)
    3. Warm UL Down Jacket, and a light 6-8 oz Rain Jacket
      All of these work as well as conventional (heavy) gear at 3 times the weight.
    4. Appropriate for the conditions: I take gear for actual conditions for the time of year and location I am backpacking. E.g. I don’t take 4-pound, 4-season dome tent, a +20F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm May trip on the Appalachian Trail with expected lows in the 60s—you’d be surprised how many people do!
  3. Pack nutritious high-calorie food: Intelligent selection of food is key:
    1. My food gives me 3,000 nutritious and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pound/day.
    2. This is the same number of calories provided by 2 pounds of average backpacking food.
    3. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying twice the food weight.
why you won't freeze or starve ultraLight backpacking

Ultralight done right: warm, dry, well-fed and lovin’ life on the trail!

In Summary

It’s not the weight of your gear but 1) rusty camping skills, 2) poor gear choices and 3) uniformed food selection that will make any backpacker more prone to being cold, wet and hungry. This is just as true for conventional (heavy) backpackers, as it is for lightweight or ultralight backpackers.

Reason 1 – Have Good Camping Skills

Good camping skills are the main reason why you won’t freeze or starve ultralight backpacking. Having confidence in your camping skills, means that you won’t compensate by packing a bunch of heavy, over-kill gear and backup gear. Here are some of what I believe are the most important camping skills:

camping skill 1 – Campsite Selection

Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. I only set mine up when there is a slight chance of rain, otherwise it stays in my pack.

Good campsite selection: While I could have pitched this lovely HMG UL Tarp higher up on the canyon wall on a shelf with great views, I chose to camp in a warmer & more protected place in the trees. And discreetly camping out of sight, away from the trail & in the trees is a favor to others sharing the canyon with me. [Note that one tarp ridgeline is solidly anchored to a cottonwood]

Pitch your shelter in a protected area, preferably in trees.

First, discreetly camping out of sight in the trees, is a favor to others sharing the area with you—rather than advertising your presence to everybody for miles around. Second, trees do a number of lovely things for you:

  • Trees provide shelter anchors: for tarps, shelter tie-outs, and hammocks. Far more secure than stakes in the ground.
  • Trees block the wind: which keeps you a lot warmer (reduces convective heat loss). It also lowers wind load and stresses on your shelter and tent stakes.
  • Trees keep you warmer: Trees prevent radiant heat loss. They reflect the day’s heat back to the ground at night in the same way that a cloudy sky makes it warmer overnight.
  • Trees keep you drier: Camping in the trees is also less prone to the heavy dew and condensation of exposed campsites.The worst place for dew is in a treeless meadow at the bottom of a canyon. The best place to be is in the woods on a flat area a few hundred feet above the canyon bottom (or surrounding lower area).

Finally, make sure that your tent is not in an area where water will pool-up or stream through.

camping skill 2 – Know How to Pitch your Shelter

Be solid on this before your trip. It’s not rocket science. Anybody can pitch a tarp or pyramid shelter with just a bit of effort.

  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. They are likely excellent.
  • Setup your shelter in the backyard, or nearby park/playing field a few times before you go. If you are backpacking with a partner do this together. You should be able to easily pitch a tarp or pyramid shelter in 3 to 5 minutes.
  • For a basic tarp, there’s no need to get fancy. An A-frame pitch between two trekking poles (or better, two trees) will work fine 95% of the time. In strong winds, pitch it lower to the ground and flatter.
  • Orient your shelter to the expected wind direction. Orient tarps with the narrower/rear end low and into the wind, pyramid shelters/tents with the door facing away from the wind.
  • In very strong winds, use the the additional tie-out points on your shelter.
  • Use sturdy Y-stakes. They have great holding power, and you can pound them into rocky ground. Always carry 1-2 spare stakes and a few hanks of spare cord.
  • Shelter cord adjusters can slip. Know a few basic knots and guyline management—a figure 8 loop at the end of a line; a girth hitch and a trucker’s hitch for guyline tension adjustment.
why you won't freeze or starve ultraLight backpacking

Safe, well protected, warm and dry at 11,000 feet in a 1.5 pound pyramid shelter: We are above tree-line so it was really important to properly pitch our shelter and use lots of sturdy Y-stakes. In this case we used 8 stakes. (And had the option to put in 4 more if needed.)

camping skill 3 – Keep Hiking When It’s Cold

Moderate but consistent movement (it needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous) is the key to keeping warm when it’s really cold.

  • Even walking 1 to 1.5 miles per hour should keep your internal, metabolic heater going, and keep your hands and feet warm. If you are getting tired you are going too fast!
  • Minimize stops to essential needs, and don’t make them longer than necessary. You get cold quickly, and it takes a long time to warm up again. If you’re starting to chill it’s time to move.
  • If you really need to stop for a longer time (over 5 minutes), try to do it in a warmer, more protected area and put on warm clothing (e.g. down jacket) as soon as you stop. Take your warm clothing off just before you start hiking again. Or even after you been walking for a few minutes.

Late winter conditions, windy and in the 20s on the Appalachian trail: I’m warm and comfortable hiking at my own pace, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer) , a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. My entire pack for 100 miles including food and water is only 10 pounds.

camping skill 4 – Clothing Adjustments

  • Put on just enough clothing to keep you warm when moving. Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness.
  • Only add warmer clothing when you can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace.
    Note: I have a lot of experience staying warm and comfortable into the 20’s F when hiking at my own pace, wearing just a 6 oz base layer, a 7 oz fleece shirt (mid-layer), a 2 oz fleece hat, and 2 oz gloves. [Although my warm down jacket comes out mightily fast at stops!]
Caption: Keep your gear dry: The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place—especially your down bag, and down jacket. A Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams combined with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks is a great way to keep your gear truly dry.

Keep your gear dry: The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. Good stuff sacks for your down sleeping bag and jacket are important, along with a waterproof pack liner, or better yet a waterproof pack.

camping skill 5 – Keep your Gear Dry

The best way to keep your gear dry is not to get it wet in the first place. This means putting on your rainwear before you get wet. Not sweating out your clothes with perspiration while hiking. And keeping the gear in your pack dry (especially your down bag, and down jacket).

  • Pack contents dry: A trash compactor bag inside your pack is lighter and works considerably better than a pack rain-cover. Inside that, put your down bag, and down jacket in their own waterproof or highly-water-resistant stuff sacks. Even better but more expensive, get a Cuben fiber backpack, with a roll top closure and sealed seams along with stowing your sleeping bag/quilt and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks. This is a great way to keep your gear truly dry and is less complicated and time consuming that pack rain-covers or liners.
  • You and your clothing dry: And finally, even tho it seems obvious, put on your rainwear before you get wet. Have your rainwear readily available on the outside of your pack (I like the large rear pocket) so you can put it on quickly and without opening your main pack bag and exposing your pack contents to rain.
  • Don’t sweat out in your rainwear: Adjust and ventilate your clothing and/or slow your hiking pace as necessary. As above, It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather.

Reason 2 – Take Light Gear Appropriate for the Conditions

I am going to be blunt. Some gear is outright better than other gear. My ultralight gear, by almost every measure, outperforms the similar conventional (heavy) gear recommended by “trusted experts.” Look through my 5 Pound Ultralight Gear List and 9 Pound Light weight Gear List (full comfort) for what I think is the best lightweight and ultralight gear on the market.

light gear 1 – Use a weather report to help you select the right gear

  • Since 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or less, a good weather report should be quite accurate for the short time you are out.
  • This will let you pack a shelter, clothing, and sleeping bag appropriate for actual conditions.
  • It will also deter you from taking fear-based, “what-if-the-worst-happens!” gear, e.g. 6 pound tent, a +10F sleeping bag, and a down jacket for a warm weather trip on the Appalachian Trail.
  • For short term forecasts, the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative and accurate. The best weather app for your smartphone is Weather Underground: Custom Forecast & Local Radar App.
  • For longer term gear planning there is historical average weather Data on Accuweather which will help you intelligently select gear months before your trip.


light gear 2 – Your tent doesn’t keep you warm

  • The hard reality is that the temperature inside your tent, at best, will only be a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
  • Your tent just keeps the wind and rain off (very important!)—but so will a tarp or pyramid shelter.
  • What does keep you warm is a puffy down sleeping bag and jacket. So…

light gear 3 – Get a good down jacket and a down quilt (or sleeping bag)

  • Down is the best and most weight efficient way to stay warm. At a minimum get a good down quilt (or sleeping bag and a down jacket.
  • Don’t believe the dire warnings about getting down wet—it’s hard to do. In over 40 years of backpacking all over the world in all sorts of conditions, I have yet to get my down so wet that it didn’t do a good job of keeping me warm. New water resistant shell fabrics and water resistant down only improve upon this.
  • The only advantage to synthetics is price, and then only in the short term. In the long term I find they usually lose loft after less than a season of use. This makes them a poor long term value. A good down bag will easily last 5 to 10 years.
  • And make no mistake, a wet synthetic sleeping bag or jacket is no joy! Keeping your gear dry is a better strategy for both down and synthetic gear.
  • Bring a sleeping bag for the average temp: I bring a sleeping bag (or quilt) rated for the average expected low temperature for the area and time of year I am backpacking. If I get a period of unexpectedly cold weather (it happens), I supplement my sleeping bag with my fleece mid-layer, down jacket, warm hat (and down pants and booties if I have them).

This luxuriously puffy, one-pound, +20F down quilt is warmer and almost 1/3 the weight of a +32 synthetic “conventional” sleeping bag. And make no mistake: a wet synthetic sleeping bag is not warm or fun! Plan A should always be to keep your quilt/bag dry in the first place.

light gear 4 – Extra shirts, pants and base-layers are a poor choice to stay warm

  • Your money and gear weight is better spent on buying a warmer down bag and jacket. Or even down pants, down hat and down booties. All of these are far warmer per ounce than extra shirts, pants, and base-layers.
  • And you only need one 6-10 oz fleece/wool mid layer garment.

light gear 5 – A tarp or pyramid shelter may be drier than a tent

  • The small, confined, and less ventilated area inside a tent can be wetter than a larger (and much lighter) pyramid shelter or tarp. This is also a recommendation to buy the larger tarp or pyramid shelter. For just a little more weight you get a lot more living space!
  • Condensation is a big problem in small tents. It’s very easy to get your gear wet from the high humidity inside. In tight quarters it’s almost impossible not to brush your sleeping bag or down jacket against condensing tent walls. And if you happen to get into the tent with wet gear it is unlikely to dry in the humid climate.
  • In contrast, a tarp or pyramid shelter might have twice the room & be better ventilated & less humid.
  • And if you’re stuck in the shelter for an extended period of time, you’ll welcome the larger and less constricted living area of a large tarp or pyramid shelter. During long rains, small backpacking tents become more like coffins than dwellings!

light gear 6 – Finally, resist the temptation to take extra/backup gear

  • This is the time to trust yourself, your gear and your camping skills!
  • If you’ve carefully selected the right gear, and researched trail conditions and the weather… then there should be little reason to bring “backup clothes or equipment.”
  • Not bringing unneeded gear, is the easiest way to save weight and money.

Reason 3 – Pack Nutritious High-calorie Food

food 1 – Take high calorie food and save food weight

You can save a lot of weight and even money by selecting the right backpacking food. My nutritious and high calorie Backpacking Food gives me 3,000 tasty, healthful and filling calories of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for around 1.5 pound/day. Over a 3 day weekend backpacking trip I get as many calories and as much nutrition, possibly more than someone carrying almost double the food weight. See: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly


The right food will keep you well-fed and save you 5 pounds or more of food on a trip vs. a typical backpacker’s food.

food 2 – Maintain nutrition

Try to get the most calories per unit weight in your food but not at the expense of a poor diet. You want a balanced diet with good protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and other nutrients.

  • I take healthy homemade meals, unsweetened, unsulfured dried fruit, freeze dried vegetables, nuts, homemade gorp, whole grain crackers, whole grain pasta, healthier-higher-calorie trail bars, and lean jerky and powdered milk and powdered soy for my protein.
Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

A nutritious dinner in the Alaska Range near Denali.

food 3 – Don’t carry extra food

The standard advice to carry an extra day of food is hooey. I figure I can make it at least 3 days without any food. Of course, I am not recommending going without food, just saying that you can live if you end up short on food. You’ll have to make your own decision on extra food. Maybe you will just bring a bit less extra food next trip.

food 4 – “Skip” one day of food

I eat a big breakfast or lunch before I start hiking the first day and I eat a big meal when I get out. By boosting my off-trail calories on the first and last day I eliminate carrying a whole day’s worth of food in my pack.

food 5 – Drink when thirsty and carry less water

  • Drink to Thirst: I carry only the water I need to meet my thirst. When I drink to thirst I rarely carry more than a liter, and usually a lot less.
  • “If you are thirsty, it’s already too late” and “If your urine is yellow, you are dehydrated,” are myths. My article The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty is based on the current best science (from experts in the field of sports hydration not beholden to sports drink and bottled water companies). It suggests that “drinking to thirst” is the safest and healthiest strategy for hydration during exercise.


People pack heavy, because they pack for their fears—for their wildly imagined “what if the worst happens scenarios.” Rather than relying on their camping skills (which should be more than adequate) and the predicted weather and conditions for their hike, they choose to overcompensate for their fears by packing heavy, over-kill gear, extra clothes, extra food etc. But heavy packing doesn’t make you all that much safer, warmer, well fed or comfortable. It just makes your pack heavy and walking slow and unpleasant.

Put a little faith in yourself and your gear and go lighter!


Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

These tasty and nutritious backpacking meal recipes are healthier, have more calories and cost less than commercial, freeze dried backpacking meals. Keep it simple — there are enough nutritious backpacking meal recipes here to provide sufficient daily variety to keep meals fun and interesting. But there aren’t so many recipes that I spend too much time buying ingredients and assembling a large inventory of gourmet meals. I’d rather spend my time hiking than fussing with food.

Note: This is a companion piece to my top rated post, Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly which has more detailed info on nutrition and backpacking food choices.

Photo: Author eating dinner in the Alaska Range – credit: Andrew Skurka

Meal Rotation Planner — Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Keep it simple — I rotate 2 to 3 meal options for each trip. This provides enough food variety on the trail. By limiting meals to 2 to 3 nutritious backpacking meal recipes, I simplify food purchasing and meal prep.

Backpacking Meal Planner – example of a 3-day rotation
1None: eat large one off-trail#1 Wrap+cheese & mustard (fruit #1)#1 Rice+beans w chips+cheese
2#1 Muesli#2 Bison+sesame stix (dried fruit #2)#2 Couscous curry
3#2 Hot oatmeal/cream-o-wheat#3 Crackers+almond butter (fruit #3)#3 Chili mac
4#3 Grape-Nuts + strawberries#1 Wrap+cheese & mustard (fruit #1)#1 Rice+beans w chips+cheese
#1 Muesli#2 Bison+sesame stix (dried fruit #2)#2 Couscous curry
6#4 Quick breakfast meal bar#3 Crackers+almond butter (fruit #3)None: eat large one off-trail

If you don’t already have one get an inexpensive kitchen scale that weighs up to 11 pounds (5 Kg). Almost all the ingredients are measured by weight for these recipes.

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

If you don’t already have one get an inexpensive kitchen scale that weighs up to 11 pounds (5 Kg). Almost all the ingredients are measured by weight for these recipes.

Breakfast Recipes

The following are nutritious and filling breakfasts that should keep a spring in your step until lunch! They have healthy fats and a good amount of protein. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE RECIPES full page here, as a Google Sheet

Dinner mid-way up Mt. Olympus, Olympic Peninsula Washington State.

Dinner mid-way up Mt. Olympus, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.

Dinner Recipes

The following are nutritious backpacking dinner recipes. These are filling meals at around 700-800 calories per serving! They have healthy fats and a good amount of protein. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE DINNER RECIPES on a full page here, as a Google Sheet

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Rehydrating in a Ziplock bag makes cleanup much easier. Especially nice in “dry” camps. You usually use less fuel as you kill your stove as soon as the water boils. Downside is that the meal does not rehydrate as well as when it’s cooked in the pot, and rehydration can take longer. A long handled spoon pictured here helps reach into deep baggies without getting your fingers covered in food.

Dessert and Hot Drink Recipes

The following are just few ideas for desserts and after dinner drinks. Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see all the recipes Or you can see ALL THE DINNER RECIPES full page here, as a Google Sheet

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Cooking a meal in the pot does a better job of rehydrating a meal. Especially if you let it simmer for a few minutes after a boil. Downside is that the pot is harder to clean, especially with cheese. And food can burn to the pot bottom if you aren’t careful. (photo: Andrew Skurka)

Rice And Beans With Cheese And Tortilla Chips

Use these healthy freeze dried Black Beans & Rice (available at REI) or at Amazon. Open the meal bag and add 2 oz of Just Hot Veggies or any of Just Tomatoes FD veggies.

Then separately package in ziplock snack baggies:

  • 3-4 oz cheddar cheese (cubed or shredded)
  • 2 oz of lightly salted tortilla chips of your choice (lightly crushed)

Place both the cheese and chip baggies back in the meal bag and reseal it.

Meal Prep Directions

  • pour 17 to 18 oz hot water into the meal packet and set aside to re-hydrate
  • after about 5 minutes, stir in cheese
  • when full hydrated (about 10 min), crumble tortilla chips over the top and enjoy!

Note: eat in packet with long spoons unless you want to be scraping cheese out of your pot and/or bowls for some time.

Nutritious Backpacking Meal Recipes

Dinner in a remote canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase.

Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

These Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists, 5 Pound or 9 Pound, will save you a lot of pack-weight but still keep a smile on your face. You will most likely be warmer, more comfortable, and sleep better than most campers carrying 2 to 3 times the weight in conventional/heavier backpacking gear.

The Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

These two great lightweight backpacking gear lists are suitable for most backpackers on most 3-season trips (spring, summer, and fall) in the lower 48 states of the US as well as most trekking (backpacking) trips world-wide. They will do you proud for:

  • Appalachian Trail and other backpacking areas on the East Coast
  • The Sierras, Rockies and other mountains of the Western US
  • Cascade Mountains and Pacific Northwest
  • The Canyons and Deserts of the Southwest
  • Trekking Trips Worldwide (e.g. Patagonia, Europe, New Zealand, etc.)

Pick the Gear List that Suits You

5 pound Practical Light Backpacking Gear List9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Gear List
3 day wt11 to 13 lb* total pack weight for 3 days
(*total wt includes gear, food, fuel & water)
15 to 20+ lb* total pack weight for 3 days
(*total wt includes gear, food, stove fuel & water)
PurposeTo travel as light as possible but be warm, dry & safe. Focused on efficiency. Whatever you like to do: enjoying great views, photography, swimming, fishing, getting extra camp time, or hiking long miles, this will give you more time to do it. Capable of 100+ miles w/o resupplyTravel light while retaining all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking gear. e.g. a freestanding tent vs. a tarp and a canister vs. alcohol stove. Gear is familiar and easy to use. Good for trekking almost anywhere worldwide.
Gear SourcesUses some exciting, lighter & innovative gear from cottage manufacturers like Hyperlite Mountain Gear, ULA Packs, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Hammock Gear: (may need to wait a few weeks for some gear)Uses more conventional gear (sometimes heavier) from mainstream commercial vendors like REI. Gear usually available off-the-shelf.
PackUnder 1 pound: Frameless, with a good hip-belt & durable fabric. (Options for a frame pack for longer trips w/heavier loads.)2 pounds or under: Solid internal frame. Larger volume. Can carry a bear canister. From REI: Osprey Exos 48 Pack
ShelterAround ½ lb/person: usually a tarp  or a shared pyramid shelterAround 1 to 2 lb/person: freestanding tent (an ultralight one), or a TarpTent
OtherLess “other stuff.” Minimal lightA few more comfort & convenience items
Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

My pack for 8 days:  With a light pack you can cover a lot of trail miles in complete comfort—wanting for nothing. Pictured the HyperLight Mountain Gear Southwest 2400  pack on the GR 20 in Corsica.

Modify These Gear Lists to Your Personal and Trip Needs

By all means, fine-tune these lists to your particular trip needs and/or backpacking style. Just select from the optional or alternate gear items (already included in these lists). In addition, you may wish to use some gear from the 5 Pound List and other gear from the 9 Pound List. Mixing and matching between lists is fine.

The two modifications I often make to the 5 Pound Practical Light Backpacking Gear List are:

  1. Substitute a two-pound pack like the HyperLight Mountain Gear Southwest 2400 or 3400 pack ULA Ohm 2.0 or Circuit pack (or from REI:Osprey Exos 48) if reg’s require a bear canister, and/or if I am carrying a lot of food and/or climbing gear that pushes my my total pack weight above 20 pounds. Note: in areas where an Ursack is allowed I would go back to using a 1 lb frameless pack.
  2. Skip the tarp and use a MLD Pyramid or HMG Pyramid Shelter if I know (from a recent Wx forecast) that I will likely be camping exposed, above treeline in really cold/wet weather.

Hammock vs. Ground Sleeping (e.g. Tent)

Of particular note is that both lists have options for hammock or ground-sleeping (e.g. tent). In areas with plentiful trees like the East Coast of the US I feel that hammock camping has many advantages, see: Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems. When in the Sierras or other areas with few trees, the opposite is true and I usually cowboy camp on the ground in a 7 ounce bivy sack, only putting up a tarp when it is actually raining (or sharing a pyramid shelter).

Two Great Lightweight Backpacking Gear Lists

With a lighter pack you can get into some incredible areas like this that few people with heavy packs are likely to visit. (Off-trail in the High Sierra)

6 Pound Practical Lightweight Backpacking Gear List

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

This “Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking” is the companion post to my 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List. It explains the underlying philosophy and criteria that integrates all the gear into a safe and effective ultralight kit. And most important, it gives you few tips on how best to use it.

Overview of Technique for Ultralight Backpacking

I originally created the 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List list for my 3-day, 102 mile section hike on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. See: “My Trip Report.” I was surprisingly warm, dry and comfortable on the trip in challenging late winter conditions. After my hike, I looked over the trip’s gear with a worldwide trekking perspective and saw that it was extremely similar to gear I have taken trekking for most of the US and worldwide. I concluded that this ultralight backpacking gear list was likely the lightest, most efficient & practical gear list for backpacking treks in the US and worldwide.

The5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List works for 3-season treks (spring, summer, fall) in these locations and likely many more:

  • Appalachian Trail and other backpacking areas in the East
  • The Sierras, Rockies and other mountains of the Western US
  • Cascade Mountains and Pacific Northwest
  • The Canyons and Deserts of the Southwest
  • Trekking Trips Worldwide (e.g. Patagonia, Europe, New Zealand, etc.)

IN EUROPE, lead photo above: Using a ultralight pack with gear almost identical to what I used on the AT this spring, Alison walks a high alpine ridge in Corsica, France. The GR20 in Corsica is considered the hardest long distance trek in Europe and is legendary for its violent  weather.

Definition of Practical Ultralight Backpacking

Practical Ultralight Backpacking is the gear, food and technique that will maximize distance traveled in the most efficient manner (less time wasted, less wear and tear on the backpacker). Practical Light has an emphasis on efficiency in all aspects: when hiking, making camp, getting a good night’s sleep, leaving camp in the morning, proper nutrition and hydration, and staying warm, dry and in good spirits. Warning: As a side benefit, the light pack may increase your enjoyment of backpacking.


Guiding Principles for Practical Ultralight Backpacking

  • My first priority is to enjoy myself and appreciate the terrain I’m walking through. Hiking at my own comfortable/efficient pace and watching the ever changing landscape unfold is my favorite way to fully appreciate the beauty of the backcountry.
  • Being cold, wet, or hungry or getting a crappy night’s sleep sucks. I want no part of it.
Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAL, the embodiment of practical light backpacking: My pack weighs only 10 Pounds (gear, food, water & fuel). With it I hiked a 102 mile section of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. Covering that distance would not have been possible if my light gear weren’t also extremely efficient and practical. I was surprisingly warm, dry and comfortable in late winter conditions—snow, 40 mph horizontal sleet, cold rain, and hard freezes at night.

Philosophy and Techniques for Practical Ultralight Backpacking

Important Efficiency and Time Saving Considerations. Obviously a very light pack is still a significant contributor towards Practical Ultralight Backpacking, but it’s far from the only one. Other factors I consider important for keeping it fun, minimizing wear and tear on my body, and minimizing time wasted include:

  1. Food: I need to carry enough and the right food to sustain me from dawn to dusk hiking. I need appetizing, nutritious, and high caloric food. See Backpacking Food Page.
  2. Water: I minimize water carried (while still staying well-hydrated!). The key is to drink when thirsty and filter/drink at the source when possible. See Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty
  3. A good night’s sleep: My shelter (tent/tarp/hammock) and sleep system (sleeping bag/quilt and ground-pad) should give me a great night’s sleep to recover from a long day day of hiking, and allow me to wake cheerfully ready to hike another day.
  4. Don’t waste time fiddling with gear: Messing around with “high-futz, high fiddle factor gear” wastes time, and reduces my daily time for fun things. For example, a light shelter with a complicated spiderweb of 9-12 guylines is not practical. The time it takes to stake out all those guylines (even worse in rocky ground) is not worth the few oz of weight savings vs. a shelter with 4-6 stakes or better yet, cowboy camping under the stars in a bivy sack.
  5. Quick access to gear while walking:  Maps, food, water, camera, sunglasses, hats, gloves, etc. should all be available without breaking stride. Here, pockets are your best timesaving friend; the more the better. I use up to 12 walking-accessible pockets: 6 cargo pants pockets plus 2 side, 2 hipbelt, and 2 shoulder strap pockets of my pack. Rooting around in the main bag of your pack in the middle of the day to find some elusive item is frustrating and a huge time waster.
  6. Maximize available campsites: My gear should allow me to camp wherever I want at the end of my optimal hiking day—whenever I decide that I am done. I do not want my light gear to limit my options and force me to camp at inconvenient locations.

If I compromise any of the above to lighten my pack, my gear is no longer practical. That is, I will be less efficient, waste time and hike fewer miles per day if I cut more weight.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

IN THE SIERRAS, modification to use a framed pack for a heavier load: I am using a HMG Pack with a frame to carry both a bear canister (required) and my climbing gear. This is too much of a load for a frameless pack. All other gear items are essentially the same as the “5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List.” (Don and I climbed Mt Conness in the background.)

How your sleep system (hammock, tent, bivy sack, etc.) determines where you can camp

Hammock camping example: Let’s say you are hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s mid-to-late-afternoon and you are plum tuckered—done hiking for the day but… you are midway between shelters/good campsites. There certainly isn’t any good camp-able area where you are. The ground is rocky, sloping, full of trees, and tree roots. There doesn’t seem to be any decent place to pitch a tent. Your options are:

  1. Continue another few hours to the next good campsite. Not an appealing option if you are already tired.
  2. Decide to do the best to camp where you are. It may take a bit of searching to find a remotely passible place for your tent. Even then it likely to take some time and effort to pitch it in a less than optimal “campsite.” [Believe me. It happens! I’ve seen more than my share of tents pitched in the middle of the AT by desperate hikers than ran out of time and/or energy. The actual trail was the only flat ground they could find.]
  3. Or if you had a hammock you could easily pitch it between two trees and enjoy the rest of your day.

As you can see your choice of a sleep system has an impact on where you can camp. Of particular note are choices for hammock camping vs. ground camping (i.e. a tent) and how your choice determines whether you have many or limited campsite options. In areas with plentiful trees like the Appalachian Trail, most ground is rocky, sloping and unsuitable for camping. There are limited camps with flat ground and they are usually far apart. Here hammock camping allows you more campsite options. All you need is two trees to hang from—that’s just about everywhere! The ground below you is irrelevant. Note: Hammock camping has many other advantages. See Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems.

Ground camping (bivy) example: When in the Sierras, other western mountains above treeline, or in other areas without trees like the desert, the opposite is true. Sleeping on the ground gives you more campsite options. For example, in the Sierras I usually cowboy camp on the ground in a 7 oz bivy sack—this has the smallest footprint and does not require stakes, giving me the most options for campsites—I can even tuck in between boulders or small shrubs to get out of the wind. I only put up a tarp when it rains. Otherwise, I am enjoying the stars at night. Tents with a larger footprint and more stakes reduce campsite options and take more time to setup and take down, although this is rarely a showstopper in the western mountains.

For distance oriented hikers: Let’s say that you are hiking near the end of the day and you can 1) reach the next campsite an hour before dusk or 2) you can reach the campsite after that by hiking an hour in the dark. In other words, you have two choices, 1) stop short for the day and loose an hour of daylight hiking time or 2) hike an hour in the dark to the next one. Hiking in the dark under headlamp, while possible is not efficient. Your pace slows trying to find good footing, your risk of injury goes up, and it is exceptionally easy to loose the trail at night, and very hard to relocate it. What would be optimal, and most efficient would be to camp right before dusk midway between the two camps. What camping gear you choose plays a role on whether you have the flexibility to camp right at dusk when it’s most convenient for you.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

HAMMOCKS GIVE YOU MORE CAMPSITE OPTIONS IN THE EAST: Alison and I are happily sleeping side by side in hammocks above sloping ground with plenty of roots—ground unsuitable for tent camping. It went down in to the 20’s that night but we slept blissfully warm and comfortable. Great star gazing too!

I realize that some readers will be unconvinced by my enthusiasm for hammock or tarp camping even in areas with lots of good trees, or cowboy camping in a bivy sack. Therefore in the gear list, I also provide more conventional alternatives like TarpTents and Pyramid Shelters. If you are looking for full tent options, See: 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

IN THE CANYONS AND DESERT SOUTHWEST: a light pack is essential to moving safely across slickrock. I am using a HMG Southwest 2400 Pack to handle the extra weight of a rope, a minimal set of climbing gear, and extra water for the desert environment.

Modifications to the 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List

Readers may wish to modify this list to their particular trip needs and/or backpacking style. As such, I have provided a number of optionals or alternate gear items in the list. Here are my two most common variations:

  • I will skip the tarp and use a MLD Pyramid or HMG Pyramid Shelter if I know (from a recent Wx forecast) that I will likely be camping exposed, above treeline in really cold/wet weather. Usually I am sharing the pyramid shelter with my wife or a climbing partner so the overall shelter weight per person remains around ½ pound—so no increase in weight.
Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

IN EUROPE, modification to use a shared pyramid shelter: That stone wall is there for a reason. The GR20 in Corsica is legendary for its violent afternoon thunderstorms. Just a few weeks before our trip, a number of hikers died and many more were injured in a powerful storm. Alison and I chose to share a pyramid shelter. At only 10 oz, (280 g) per person and requiring 5 stakes, it is in keeping with the principals of practical light backpacking.

“Everything in its place and a place for everything.”Pockets keep gear organized where I can quickly find things, saving a bunch of time. Scrabbling into the main compartment of my backpack in search of some elusive item is never fun and wastes a lot time.

Techniques for Ultralight Backpacking

Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking


Introduction to Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking

Each year Alison and I look forward to our early spring backpacking trip. Usually a 3-day weekend in early spring, this trip is a key element for the success of our upcoming backpacking trips for the year. We thought others might be interested in the Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking, and possibly to incorporate some version of it into their own backpacking routine.

[Lead photo above: Alison overlooking an entirely misted-in Canaan Valley on a frosty spring morning.]

For us, early spring is the perfect time to get out for a shakedown trip in preparation for the upcoming year of backpacking. The primary Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking:

Benefits Early Spring Backpacking

See the AT Section Hike gear I was evaluating: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail

  1. Evaluate our physical conditioning to hike long back-to-back days. We planned to cover 40-45 miles with at least one 20-25 mile day. See the training schedule we follow: Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking
  2. Evaluate new gear we intend to use on upcoming trips. In this case, Alan was evaluating gear for an upcoming 100-mile section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. See: the Light gear he was evaluating
  3. Other benefits: Shake he winter blues, lack of crowds & cool temperatures make great hiking (& sleeping) conditions; spring wildflowers, no bugs, great views with leaves off trees.

Lack of crowds is a definite advantage to early spring trips: This lovely waterfall in Dolly Sods is by an extremely popular backcountry campsite. In high season it can be hard to find a place to pitch a tent. In early spring, this campsite area (day 2 of our trip) was nearly deserted and we got the best campsite in the place with this view!

Challenges of spring camping, at least on the east coast, include a higher probability of cold rain (we had 35 degree rain the first afternoon/evening), wet and muddy trails, and the possibility of quite cold nights (it went down to 20F our second night out). We managed all of these with the right gear and technique.

Our Early Spring Backpacking Trip Report

Living on the East Coast, many people think there are limited options for hiking. Not so! See: AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide To 30 Of The Best Multiday Trips From New York To Virginia. Although we don’t have the famous places like Yosemite or Yellowstone, there are plenty of options for a good weekend outing. This year, we chose one of our favorites, Dolly Sods Wilderness Area for our early spring backpacking trip. Even though we’ve been to the Sods (or “the Sogs” as this wet area is affectionally known) for over a dozen years. But there is always something new and different for us to explore. This year, not only did we discover a new trail with spectacular views (lead photo for this post), but we’ve never quite had such a magically misty morning like the one that greet us our second day out. It was a welcome antidote to sleeping in a 25-degree pine grove with the weather spitting on us most of the night.

Day 1 Friday – a 1/2 day to backpack about 10 miles

Day 1 was more late winter than early spring. This was a 1/2 day as we both worked in the morning. We arrived at Trail Head at 2:00 pm. By early evening it was 35 degrees, spitting rain, and skies were ominously dark while ridges and high meadows were shrouded in mist. The Dunkenbarger Trail, notoriously wet in normal times, was more lake/mud river than trail due to rain storm the night before. About 70% of the Dunkenbarger Trail was 6-18 inches deep in near freezing water and mud. Sections of other trails were only marginally better. We arrived in camp with soaking wet shoes and socks, and pants bottoms covered in mud up to the knee. We quickly got into all the down we could muster and hung our hammocks in a sheltered grove of pine trees.


Downside of spring camping, at least on the east coast, is higher probability of wet and muddy trails. While moderately unpleasant on a sunny 60 degree day, hiking on a “trail” like this in 35 degree rain can be near misery (as was our hike along the Dunkebarger Trail on Day 1).

Backpacking Spring Training

Warm and snug in our hammocks sheltered in grove of pines. It was spitting rain when we went to bed and dropped to 25 degrees by the next morning. Alan was evaluating a very light hammock system for his upcoming Appalachian Trail Section Hike. [Alan on left: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts, and HG Cuben Hex Tarp Alison on right: Hammeck Envy hammock, HG top & bottom quilts, and Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Hex Tarp] We both stayed warm, dry and happy in our hammocks.

Day 2 Saturday – our long mileage day

The day started cold. Temps were in the mid 20’s and there is no joy quite like putting on frozen shoes and socks onto already cold feet. It was cold enough that we had our tea and coffee while packing up but left without eating breakfast. Still wearing our down jackets we quickly hammered out some fast trail miles to warm up those frozen toes.

We hoped to hike around 25 miles on Day 2 since this trip was training for upcoming backpacking trips (based on our Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking). Getting the miles in was going to be a challenge with most trails either muddy or running small streams. But the sunny day semi-dried up the Sogs, and by noon the trails were in better condition than Day 1. We carefully chained together “drier” trails in the northern sections of the Sods, and managed to get 25 miles in before hitting camp that evening.


Then the Spring Magic started to happen. We took an innocuous and faint tread of a trail to the top of a ridge and got a spectacular view of the Canaan Valley spread out below us filled with morning mists. It was a perfect spot to sit and watch the mists while we ate our breakfast on the frost covered hill side. Our REI Sahara Convertible Pants seem to go on just about every trip in every weather.

By the time we were done with breakfast, the mists were gone. It never ceases to amaze us how a trip can change from slogging along in near misery, to near bliss in just a few hours. Spring backpacking is like that.


Mid-morning the grass is still covered in frost, and Alison is still hiking in her fleece and down jacket to stay warm. The mist is almost gone from the Canaan Valley.

Spring arrived around 11 am with sunshine, blue skies and temps nearing the 60s, just as the national Wx service had forecast—and the reason we had headed out this weekend.


By mid-afternoon we came by this day-hiking couple eating apples under this tree. As far cry, from wearing a down jacket while hiking just a few hours earlier.


Snuggled into our hammocks and warm down quilts for a great sleep on a cold night (20 degrees). No tarps needed as it was clear skies and we wanted to stargaze. Again, Alan was evaluating a very light hammock system for his upcoming Appalachian Trail Section Hike. [Alan’s hammock in front: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts. Alison on right: Hammeck Envy hammock, HG top & bottom quilts. Both hammock systems performed flawlessly on two nights, both in the 20s.


Our Day 2 campsite is one of our all-time favorites with a great view of one of the nicest waterfalls in the Sods.

Backpacking Spring Training

It froze hard overnight, registering 20F on my thermometer. In the morning our socks where frozen stiff as boards as were our shoes (since we were walking out that morning, we transformed our “sleeping” socks into trail socks and started walking. Our shoes un-froze and our feet were warm in a few minutes).

Day 3 Sunday – quick hike out – brunch – home in time for an evening play

We did a quick 6-7 miles back to the car and our early spring camping trip was done and dusted. In keeping with a Dolly Sods traditiona, we stopped for brunch at a favorite local haunt, Cristina’s Cafe – Strasburg, VA, for whole grain, sourdough french toast topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and excellent, just-brewed coffee. Highly recommended! We were back in DC in time to unload gear out of the car, shower, take a quick nap, have dinner and easily make our evening play. That’s what we call a full and fun weekend!

-Alan & Alison


Drying out all our damp gear from a couple of cold and wet nights. Actually, the down jackets and quilts were spread out in the back of our wagon and already drying on the way home.

Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101

A sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with Olympus E-520 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens.] This photo looks great enlarged to 14x19.

A sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with 16 oz, mirrorless digital SLR camera (like this) with its stock zoom lens. ] This photo looks great enlarged to 14×19.

Purpose: This article addresses the selection of a lightweight backpacking camera and photo gear. In particular, you will understand the tradeoffs of camera size and weight vs. image quality.


The 16 ounce Sony a6000 with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D. Pictured is my full Sony a6000 backpacking kit: Sony a6000 Mirrorless Camera w (kit 16-50mm lens or alternate lens), Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco Ultrapod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery (spare), Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

Camera SLR
crop format
Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens*
new model: Sony a6300
16.0Among lightest 24mp APS-C cameras. With the right lens, image quality approaching Canon 5D
Lens alt/add’lSony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens w hood (6.2)Fast, superb resolution, normal lens w image stabilization. Use dawn & dusk. Possibly w/o tripod!
Lens alt/add’lSigma 19mm f2.8 DN, w hood (6.1)For landscape. Light, inexpensive, sharper at 19mm than the a6000 16-50mm kit lens
Lens alt/add’lSigma 30mm f2.8 DN, w hood (5.7)Only $199! Superb resolution. Lightweight.
Battery spareSony NP-FW50 Battery (1.5)Alt less $: Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) & Charger
MountPeak Designs CapturePRO 110g3.8Take more photos! Fast access to camera!
Attaches to backpack shoulder strap
MountPeak Designs Micro Plate 25g0.8Needed to clear a6000’s hinged LCD screen
Tripod SLRPedco ultra-pod II 114g, 4.0 ozFor small mirrorless SLR cameras
Tripod mountNewer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head 51g, 1.8 ozFor quick attachment of camera with Peak Designs Micro Plate (alt = Desmond DLVC-50)
ProtectionGallon Freezer ZipLocTo protect camera gear from rain


A recent photo shot in Dolly Sods Wildness with the 16 oz Sony a6000 mirrorless digital SLR camera and its stock zoom lens (listed in table above).

Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101 – Why Sensor Size Matters

If you don’t want to go into all the gory details at this point you can just jump to a discussion of the Lightweight backpacking cameras I use.

Lightweight Backpacking Camera

My three lightweight backpacking cameras L to R: Canon PowerShot S100 (current model s120), Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens (new model: Sony a6300), Sony RX100iii (current model RX100iv). With each increase in size, weight and cost you get higher quality images, but at expense pocket-ability and rapid access to the camera for a quick shot. (photo taken with my iPhone 6+)

While some point and shoot lightweight backpacking cameras may produce quite serviceable photos, don’t expect professional quality images from a camera with a sensor* the size of your little fingernail and a lens the size of a snap pea. It would be great if a 5 oz Point and Shoot (P/S) compact camera produced images close to the quality of images from a 3 ½ pound digital SLR (DSLR) camera and lens combination like a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. But camera sensor and lens size has significant impact on image quality. In summary: better image quality requires a larger sensor, which in turn requires a larger camera body and a larger lens, and ultimately a heavier camera.

Since we can’t bypass laws of physics (sensor* and lens size), each backcountry photographer will need to find a satisfactory compromise between camera size/weight and image quality.

* Sensor is the device in a digital camera that electronically captures the image. It performs the same function as film in old style film cameras.

5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking CameraAlso see 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

Alert! as a backpacker you are not well served by mainstream camera reviews like DPReview. That is, the 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera are quite different than those for a general use camera in mainstream reviews. Hear are the major differences.

Major factors to consider for image/photo quality

  • Larger sensors produce better image quality: (see Table of Sensor Sizes and Pixel Densities below)
    A P/S camera has a sensor 5% the size of the full-frame sensor of a camera like the Canon 5D. If each camera has the same number of pixels, then the pixels on the P/S camera will need to be 5% the size of the full-frame camera’s pixels in order to fit on the smaller sensor. So each P/S pixel can only gather 5% of the light of a full-frame sensor pixel—sometimes only a few photons per pixel (yes literally down to the photon level!). Without going into gritty detail, the close pixel spacing and limited light gathering ability of smaller sensors leads to less resolution/sharpness (for the same pixel count), less dynamic range (especially problems with clipped highlights, i.e. entirely white areas without detail), less color saturation, more noise, decreased ISO performance, and ultimately lower image quality.
  • Lens size matters: A larger sensor requires a larger lens to cover the larger sensor area. In addition, there is a limit to how precisely one can shape a small lens (e.g. a P/S camera lens). Due to the immense popularity P/S cameras and digital video recorders, there have been astonishing advancements in the optical quality of small molded plastic lenses. Nonetheless, the best optical quality is still from precisely ground glass lenses. These are the lenses used for for mid-size-semi-pro-sensors (approx. 30-40% of 35mm coverage) to full frame sensors (100% of 35mm coverage). Larger lenses do cost a lot more. A top quality lens might cost between $800 to several thousand dollars. But there are bargains to be had with some gems in the $200 to $500 range (e.g.Sigma’s Art Series prime lenses). And even some quite good zoom kit lenses.
  • Intended print size or use of images: If you intend to use the camera to produce 800 pixel snaps for your webpage, a good P/S camera should to the trick (although you will still a reduction in dynamic range, and color accuracy). But if you intend to frame large prints, you will be disappointed with the results from a P/S camera. To get sharp 16×20 or larger prints, with good color and tonality you’ll need at least a mid-size-semi-pro-sensor camera (approx. 30-40% of 35mm coverage) with a high quality lens—something like the Sony a6000.

Finally, there are no takeovers for backpacking photography. A small sensor P/S camera is extremely unlikely to produce a high quality enlargement no matter how fabulous the shot. Photoshopping is unlikely to make significant improvements. Think hard before you commit to a smaller sensor camera.

Killer Point and Shoot Cameras for backpacking

The Sony is a DP Review Editors Pick and in a class to itself for image quality for a light and compact camera. But it is quite expensive.

The Sony is  in a class to itself for image quality for a light & compact camera.

Some great, almost pocketable, 11 ounce “point and shoot” cameras produce superb images. The major disadvantage is high cost.


Mirrorless crop format cameras are probably your best option for serious photography

You best option for serious backpacking photography is probably one of the inexpensive mirrorless crop format camera (APS, APC, μ4/3) like current Sony a6000. The best of these cameras approach full-format SLR picture quality in a light, compact camera with interchangeable lenses. By doing away with a SLR mirror and viewfinder, but retaining the larger sensor and lenses of an SLR, you significantly reduce weight and bulk but retain picture quality. The 16 ounce Sony a6000 with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D.


Canon 5D challenger: The 16 ounce Sony a6000 (new model: Sony a6300) with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D. Above is the full Sony a6000 backpacking kit use: Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco Ultrapod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery, and Newer Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

And I admit, even I am tempted from time to time to carry a Canon 5D into the backcountry for its superb resolution and image quality! Note: The full-format mirrorless Sony a7 is starting to make inroads into the serious professional photo market. Even here photographers are finally getting tired of the weight and bulk DSLRs.

Lightweight backpacking camera

Sunrise Escalante River, Olympus E-30 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens. This photo looks great enlarged to 14×19. I just got done looking at the pictures my friend took with a compact P/S camera vs. the pictures I took a few weeks earlier in the same area with an Olympus DSLR with a 4/3 sensor (about nine times larger sensor). The P/S pictures are ”muddier“ and not nearly as sharp. The colors are muted and there is less tonal range. There are lots of pictures with detailess dark shadows or white (not blue) sky, sometimes both in the same shot. True, my friend still has a nice (and serviceable) photo record of her trip but most of these photos are not technically worthy of an 8×10 enlargement. Some of the shots, if they were taken with a better camera would make excellent enlargements worthy of framing. Bottom line—larger camera, larger sensor, better picture.

Cameras and Their Sensor Sizes

The following is a list of some cameras and their sensor sizes.
As a rough estimate, the lower the pixel density (mp/cm2) the higher the image quality of the camera.

Lightweight backpacking camera

Note: the example cameras in this are a bit dated, but the message is still good. Altho, now over 5 years later sensor technology has improved to the point where a current crop sensor camera like the Sony a6000 out-performs a 5-year-old, full-format DSLR.

Pixel density counts, but there may still be significant image quality differences between cameras with sensors of similar pixel densities (although probably not enough to jump camera classes). These differences in image quality are usually due to improved sensor technology and improved camera image processing. E.g.:

  • Even though it has a higher pixel density, the new Olympus E-620 has almost 1.0 EV more highlight range than the older E-520. But it still doesn’t have the RAW headroom (dynamic range) or high ISO performance of the best, mid-sized sensor APC/APC cameras (e.g. Nikon D300 or Canon Rebel XSi), let alone a full 35mm sized sensor camera (e.g Canon 5D mk2 or Nikon D700).
  • The Canon PowerShot G10 performs considerably better against compact cameras than its extremely high 34 mp/cm2 pixel density might indicate. But its 10x higher pixel density cannot match the image quality of the mid-sized APC/APS and 4/3 sensor cameras like the Canon Rebel XSi or Olympus E-620.
  • The improved technology of the Canon 5D Mk II (sensor and image processing) has better image quality (but not by a lot) over the older and lower pixel density 5D. And at 21 vs. 12.7 mega pixel the Mk II has more resolution. But the 2.4 mp/cm2 Canon 5D Mk II does not have near the RAW headroom (dynamic range) of the 1.5 mp/cm2 Nikon D700.

Available Lenses: Their Quality and Their Weight

Larger sensors require larger lenses. Larger lenses are heavier, and significantly more expensive to make. In particular it is quite difficult to make an inexpensive, high quality full frame (35mm) lens for cameras like the Canon 5D. This is where the smaller, high quality midsized sensor lenses like the Olympus Zuiko μ4/3 format lenses really shine. For the Sony a6000 there are some incredible deals with Sigma’s Art Series prime lenses. So make sure you check out the availability of high quality lightweight lenses before committing to a particular camera line. Sometimes, the lenses are significantly more important for weight and image quality than the camera body. And it is likely that you will own and use the lenses far longer than a given camera body.

The Big Three

Quick ways to reduce backpack weight

Quick ways to reduce backpack weight

Moving fast and light along the spectacular ridge line of the GR20 in Corsica. A minimal pack (and good pre-trip training) enabled Alison and I to do a 16 day trip in under 8 days. Pictured – the award winning Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack

Quick ways to reduce backpack weight. A few may surprise you…

  1. Look at The Big Three: Backpack, Tent/shelter, and Sleep System (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and ground cloth). You stand to lose a bunch of weight from these: as much as 10 to 12 pounds.
    1. Take a Backpack that weighs less than two pounds. See our: Best Backpacks for Backpacking and Hiking
    2. Take a Tent that weighs less than two pounds. See our: Best Backpacking Tents | Lightweight & Ultralight
    3. Take a Sleeping bag that that weighs less than 1.5 pounds. See our: Buyers Guide to Lightweight Backpacking Quilts & Sleeping Bags
    4. Look at our 9 Pound Full Comfort Lightweight Backpacking Gear List for more ideas for gear to save weight.
      Nine pounds of backpacking gear is all a hiker needs to be safe and warm. Or simply put, this list has better backpacking gear. For over a decade it’s been tested, refined, and updated to reflect only the best and most current backpacking gear now available in 2019. So, if you want to reduce pack weight without reducing comfort, look no further! The hiking gear in this guide is suitable for all 3-season conditions on trips around the world, from Alaska, to Patagonia, to Utah.
  2. Look on The Backpacking Food Page to save a ton of weight at zero cost
  3. Get a weather report (the NOAA hourly weather graph is among the most informative and accurate)—then pack for those conditions! Since 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less, this weather report should be quite accurate for the short time you are out. This will let you pack a tent, clothing, and sleeping bag appropriate for actual conditions. It will also deter you from taking inappropriate, “what-if-the-worst-happens!” gear, e.g. 6 pound tent, and a +10F sleeping bag for a balmy weather trip on the Appalachian Trail.
  4. Don’t take extra clothing. e.g. don’t take any more clothing than you can wear at one time.
  5. Take less: Be disciplined and leave a few items at home that you haven’t used in the last three trips. Put stuff like sunscreen and trail soap in smaller containers.
  6. Extra Credit: Browse The Gear Lists Page for other ideas and examples to save weight. This will give you a good examples of what type of gear is available and what is a reasonable weight for that type of gear, e.g. around 6-8 ounces for a rain jacket, or around 1.0 ounce for a pocket knife. Think hard if your gear is 2 to 3x heavier than the examples on these lists.
  7. Read my The Best Hydration — Drink When Thirsty. Use a Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter to drink at the source (lake, stream, etc.). Then only carry a sensible amount to get to your next known water source. I.e. it makes no sense to carry 3 liters of water, almost 7 pounds, when your next water source is only two hours away.
  8. Remember to have fun! That will at least, lighten your spirit and mood.

How Do I Start?

  • Ground yourself in reality: Get all your stuff together and weigh it. If you’re like most conventional hikers, your equipment will weigh around 30 pounds, possibly higher.
  • Get individual weights for your heavier items like tents and backpacks. For stuff in the range of a few pounds or less you’ll want to buy an inexpensive digital scale that weighs up to 10 pounds.
  • See what you can leave at home. Anything you don’t bring is free weight reduction. Think hard about this one. Do you really need it?
  • Put together a spreadsheet (or at least a list) with all your equipment weights. This is an indispensable analysis tool.
  • Try to figure out where you’ll get the most “bang for the buck.” e.g. figure out how much a new item costs and divide that by the amount of weight it will save you over your old equipment. Target the items that give you the most weight loss for the fewest dollars.
  • Buy on Sale: Don’t try to purchase all your new equipment right away. Many items regularly go on sale or are closed out. Watch carefully over the course of a year and you could save 30 to 70 percent on your equipment.

Recommended Lightweight Backpacks

These Recommended Lightweight Backpacks are your first choice if you want one light pack to work for all your trips. These packs will carry gear and food for trips up to 7 days or more—yet at around 2 pounds they are not too heavy to use for a long weekend on the Appalachian Trail. They have an internal frame to support heavier loads and will accommodate a bunch of gear and/or a bear canister.

lead photo: The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack on the rugged terrain of the GR20 in Corsica. This pack is a favorite and a Backpacker Magazine award winner for “Best UltraLight Pack.”

Do-it-all Packs for most trips up to a week (or longer)


Hyperlite Mountain Gear Packs: HMG makes very light, functional and extremely durable packs. The 3400 Southwest Pack will work for most trips, even those requiring a bear canister. The 2400 Southwest Pack is a personal favorite and a Backpacker Magazine award winner for “Best UltraLight Pack.” For longer trips it’s great for those with a more compact kit. Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling. HMG packs have stiff frames, capable of supporting heavy loads. HMG packs are Cuben Fiber which is light, waterproof and extremely durable. Seam taping and a roll-top closure make these packs virtually waterproof! 

left: HMG Southwest 2400. Light, rugged & versatile. Can be dragged across rock. Nearly waterproof.


ULA Equipment Packs: ULA packs are a great value. They have much of the performance of HMG packs but cost less.  The Circuit Pack will work for most trips, even those requiring a bear canister. The Ohm 2.0 Pack is great for those with a more compact kit and/or shorter trips (although I carried gear and food for 7 days on the Southern Sierra High Route including a bear canister). Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling. ULA packs are Robic fabric which is light and reasonably durable but inexpensive, keeping pack prices down.

right: The Ohm 2.0 Pack: Slogging up the Mountaineer’s Route on Mt. Whitney carrying a bear canister and 7 days worth of food in a ULA Ohm 2.0 pack. Its slim profile gives great balance for scrambling and its durable construction is up to the abuse of climbing Sierra granite. In this case it allowed us to climb over the summit of Whitney mid-trip on the Southern Sierra High Route.


Z-packs Arc Packs: If you hike mostly on trails, this might be the pack for you. What sets it apart is the load carrying capacity of its external frame. Z-packs does a modern, lightweight carbon fiber reinvention of the external frame backpacks of the 70’s and 80’s. Make no mistake, nothing transfers load to your hips like an external frame pack. Their Flexed Arc carbon fiber frame creates an air gap against your back, reducing that sweaty back feeling. The external frame has some considerations for off trail use. It doesn’t move with your torso as much as an internal frame pack when scrambling on rough terrain. And if you need to haul or lower your pack the external frame is exposed. It could catch on things and/or be damaged [but guessing that the majority of readers don’t haul their packs on rock]. The are Arc Haul uses more economical Dyneema fabric. The Arc Blast uses, lighter but expensive Cuben Fiber.

left: Z-packs Arc Pack: What sets it apart is the load carrying capacity of its external carbon fiber frame.

Osprey Exos 58 Pack: The main advantage of the Exos 58 is off the shelf availability form major retailers like REI (the rest of the packs on this page are not). At 2.7 pounds the Exos 58 is almost a pound heavier than other packs on this page but has features like a breathable, tensioned-mesh back panel frame and a top lid with a pocket that some trail hikers may appreciate.
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 Pack: A great trail pack with a lot of volume! While not quite as durable for scrambling/bushwhacking as the HMG and ULA packs, the Mariposa is under two pounds and has a bunch of features and creature comforts, like a top lid with a pocket that many trail hikers will appreciate.

Recommended Lightweight Backpacks for shorter trips (e.g. a long-weekend)

recommended lightweight backpacks

A light and compact pack is a huge advantage when navigating over difficult terrain. Alison descending after the crux of the GR20 with her 1 pound MLD Exodus Backpack

These packs are a great choice for a “long-weekend trip*,” typically 3 days and 2 nights. Their main advantage is that they weigh 10-18 oz, or 1/3 to 1/2 the weight of the Do-it-all Packs. In general, these packs are suited to carrying loads of 10 to 18 pounds. As such, many do not have a frame and/or may have less capacity than the Do-it-all Packs. But some backpackers with a trim gear kit may be able to use these packs for longer tips. *Note: 90% of backpackers take 90% their trips for 3 days or or less.


Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus In Dyneema Fabric

Mountain Laurel Designs Packs: The MLD Exodus Pack is a darling of the AT and a Backpacker Magazine award winner for “Best UltraLight Pack.” At just over a pound, it has the same volume of the Do-it-all Packs but saves weight by not having a frame. With light but durable Dyneema X fabric, it’s surprisingly strong, light and resistant to abuse. The 0.8 pound Burn Pack at 38 liters is a smaller and lighter version of the Exodus and is suitable for backpackers with a trimmer gear kit and/or lighter load.

mld burn

MLD Burn Pack in Cuben Fiber

Note: Mountain Laurel Designs is now offering their Burn, Prophet, and Exodus packs in Cuben Fiber. the Cuben Fiber is inherently near-waterproof. When you combine this with a Cuben stuff sacks for your down sleeping bag and jacket, you can pretty much not worry about rain. That means less time dealing with putting on a pack rain cover (they don’t work anyway) or dealing with putting everything in a waterproof pack liner.

  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 WindRider Pack: The 1.7 pound 2400 WindRider Pack is another winner of Backpacker Magazine’s “Best UltraLight Pack.” This pack is a hybrid between theDo-it-all Packs and Short trip packs. It has a bomber frame to support heavy loads but for many backpackers its 40 liter volume is more appropriate for shorter trips. It’s virtually waterproof and will handle a ton of abuse.
  • ULA Equipment CDT Pack: At 1.5 pounds and frameless, the CDT is ULA’s lightest and most basic pack. Like the MLD Exodus, its volume (54 liters) is similar to the Do-it-all packs, only the lack of a frame relegates it to shorter trips for many (but not all) backpackers.

  • Zpacks: At around 1.5 pounds the Arc Haul and the Arc Blast from Z-packs, would be a good choice for trail hiking. Especially those with sensitive shoulders that want to transfer the maximum weight to the hip belt.
  • Gossamer Gear Packs: Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson used the The Gorilla 40 Ultralight Pack to set the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. At 1.6 pounds, the Gorilla is a hybrid between the Do-it-all Packs and Short trip packs. It has a frame to support heaver loads but its 40 liter volume is more appropriate for shorter trips. The 1.1 pound Kumo Superlight and 0.6  Murmur Hyperlight are frameless 36 liter packs suitable for backpackers with a trimmer gear kit and/or lighter load. Unique to the Gossamer Gear Packs is an external and easily removable foam back-pad. This adds a bit of structure to the frameless packs and can be used as a sit pad for breaks and in camp, and/or to put under your feet at night if you use a shorter sleeping pad.
  • Osprey Exos 38 Pack: The main advantage of the Exos 38 is off the shelf availability from major retailers like REI (the rest of the packs on this page are not). At 2.2 pounds the Exos 38 is over twice the weight of most packs on this page but has features like a breathable, tensioned-mesh back panel frame and a top lid with a pocket that some trail hikers may appreciate.

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters
Possibly the best all-around, lightweight shelter is a pyramid shelter. I have used Pyramid Shelters on trips to Alaska, Patagonia, the Sierras, major European treks and around the world. (Picture of Alison in a Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid XL on the G20 in Corsica. Considered to be the toughest long distance trek in Europe, the GR20 is legendary for its violent weather.)

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Why would I not take a conventional tent?

Pyramid SheltersTarps and Shaped Tarps are lighter and better ventilated than most Conventional Tents, yet give excellent wind and rain protection. For instance a pyramid shelter with a palatial 65+ ft2 floor area and 5+ feet of headroom can weigh between 1.5 to a only pound depending on fabric (43ft2/lb to 65 ft2/lb). A well-known 2-person backpacking tent is almost 5 pounds for 47 ft2 floor area and 3+ feet of headroom (9.6 ft2/lb). So the pyramid shelter has between 4.5 to 6.8 times more room per pound than a conventional backpacking tent—put differently it is a larger storm-worthy shelter that weighs 4 pounds less!

See Shelter Weights and Stats for a detailed comparison table of Tents, Tarps and other Shelters.

Quick Answers for Tent and Shelter Selection

1) I just want to get the best all-around shelter and be done: Look at the Pyramid Shelters Page


Pyramid shelters are light and keep you dry!

Consider pyramids from Mountain Laurel Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear or My Trail Co. Pyramid shelters give you huge floor area and great storm protection for the minimum weight. Many of the pyramid shelters have an optional insert which has full mosquito netting and a bathtub floor, effectively making them a tent when needed. But giving you the option of leaving the insert at home, saving both weight and pack volume.


2) I want a conventional Tent from a major retailer like REI: Look at the Tents and Tarptents Page 

Consider lightweight tents like the REI Quarter Dome 1 Tent, or the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 Tent. (If you want to save a bit more weight, look at the Tarptents, altho these will not be from REI.)

3) I feel adventurous & want to go really light: Look at the Tarps and Shaped TarpsPyramid Shelters Page

Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

The 7.8 ounce MLD Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp was our choice for the Wind River High Route: Don and I weathered a strong thunder and hailstorm at the back of Cirque of the Towers. Exposed at over 10,000 feet in a mountain meadow, it kept us and all our down gear dry.

Consider one of the pyramids without an insert and/or in Cuben Fiber. Or consider Tarps (like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Tarps, or Mountain Laurel Designs Tarps) and Shaped Tarps if you backpack in places with occasional rain (Summer in the Sierras or the desert of Southern Utah) and/or camp in more sheltered areas (below treeline, behind large rocks, etc.). Tarps and Shaped Tarps far more floor area but a bit less headroom than a pyramid. They are significantly lighter than pyramids. e.g. a 2-personMountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Grace Duo Tarp  is 8 oz vs the 16 oz for the DuoMid XL. (Note: that some skilled and adventurous backpackers use Tarps above treeline in the high mountains and other exposed areas that get appreciable wind and precipitation. Some even winter camp under a tarp!)


Shelter Types and Stats

These shelters are listed by weight (high to low). In general they are also listed in increasing floor area (ft2) per pound (lb) of shelter weight (ft2/lb) . That is a conventional 4 pound tent provides only 5 square feet of floor area per pound of shelter weight, while a Cuben Fiber tarp provides an astonishing 100 to 130 square feet per pound of shelter weight—over 20x floor area per pound.

LbFt2/lb Type of Shelter ExamplePros and Cons
Tents and Tarptents
4 5.0Conventional
retail tent
REI Passage 1Pro: low price, readily available, full floor and bug protection, freestanding Con: heavy, low ft2/lb area & headroom
2.6 8.2Lightweight
retail tent
REI Quarter Dome 1 Pro: moderate price, readily available, full floor and bug protection, semi-freestanding Con: heavy, low ft2/lb area & low headroom
2.114.3 Tarptent TarpTent Squall 2Pro: OK price, full floor and bug protection Con: not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
Pyramid Shelters
1.7 18.2Pyramid shelter
silnylon w innernet
Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMidPro: full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 4+ ft high, full floor and bug protection, modular – take innnet only when needed Con: moderately expensive with innernet, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
 1.129Pyramid shelter
silnyl w/o innernet
Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMidPro: moderate price, great ft2/lb ratio, full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 4+ ft high Con: no floor or bug netting, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
.7 46Pyramid shelter
Cuben w/o innernet
 Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid Pro: Exceptional ft2/lb ratio, full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 4+ ft high Con: High price, no floor or bug netting, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles
 1.1 57.3Pyramid shelter
(Cuben Fiber)
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2Pro: Exceptional ft2/lb area, full rain & wind protection, large floor area, 5+ ft high Con: Expensive, no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers, not freestanding FYI: requires trekking poles, *can get optional floor/bug net insert
Tarps and Shaped Tarps
 1.9 38Flat tarp with innernet & beak
(Cuben Fiber)
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II UL Shelter SystemPro: better rain & wind protection than plain flat tarp, large floor area, full floor and bug protection, modular – take “insert” or beak only when needed Con: Very expensive, not available at major retailers
 1.240Shaped tarp
Silnylon fabric
(Cuben 0.7 lb and 72 ft2/lb)
Mountain Laurel Designs TrailStarPro: Great ft2/lb area, moderate price, good rain & wind protection, huge 50+ ft2 floor space Con: (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain & wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI: *there is an innernet for the TrailStar
 0.8 80Flat tarp
Silnylon fabric
Mountain Laurel Designs Grace DuoPro: High ft2/lb area, moderate price, decent rain & wind protection, huge floor space Con: (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain and wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI *can get optional innernet, 7.8 oz in Cuben
0.6 115Flat tarp
Cuben Fiber
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II TarpPro: Exceptional ft2/lb area, decent rain & wind protection Con: Very expensive, (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain and wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI *can get optional floor/bug net insert
 .5 130Flat tarp
Cuben Fiber
Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Grace Duo TarpPro: Exceptional ft2/lb area, decent rain & wind protection, huge floor space Con: Very expensive, (vs. a pyramid; less headroom, somewhat less rain and wind protection), no floor or bug netting*, not available at major retailers FYI *can get optional innernet,