Published May 22, 2011, 12:00 AM

Campers on a diet: Lighter backpacks cut strain of outdoor hikes

Whether you’re an experienced camper or are just starting out, you might be weighing yourself down with extra baggage.

By: Associated Press, INFORUM

Whether you’re an experienced camper or are just starting out, you might be weighing yourself down with extra baggage. Instead of carrying a traditional pack that weighs 50 or 60 pounds, ultra-lightweight and super ultra-lightweight campers are carrying packs that weight under 12 pounds and 5 pounds, respectively. It may seem like very little, but that’s the point.

True ultra-lightweight backpackers share an extreme attention to detail. They choose lithium over alkaline batteries because of the difference in weight. They cut the corners off maps, the handles off toothbrushes, and extra straps off backpacks to shed weight. Every ounce counts when you are going for the lightest pack possible.

Carrying less enables you to go farther since you don’t tire as quickly, and it can be better for your body, too, as Gregg Spoering, who has been camping since he was 11 years old, discovered.

“It has saved my knees. I thought I was going to have to give up backpacking 10 years ago,” he said. “I’m just as comfortable in the woods now than when I carried a ‘traditional’ pack.”

But for the average camper looking to go lighter, there are a few main tips to follow. First, adjust your big three: tent, backpack and sleeping bag. Consider using a tarp to replace your tent. Choose a simpler backpack; extra padding, pockets, and zippers can add up. (If you have less stuff, you probably won’t need a heavy-duty backpack anyway.) Consider spending a little more on a down sleeping bag. They are light and warm.

Second, scrutinize. Think about what you want to bring, then decide what you actually need. Do you need a fresh shirt each day? Can you simplify your first-aid kit based on what you have used in the past? Know how to use what you take. Make cuts like you mean it and be honest about your skill level; let that guide what you bring.

Third, use one item for multiple purposes. Spoering suggests using a bandana as a potholder, headband, towel and even a map, since some are printed with maps of popular hiking areas. There are others: make a beer can cooking pot, fashion a Betty Crocker frosting container into an insulated mug, or use a disposable water bottle instead of a heavy metal one.

If you’ve made all the cuts you can but want to shave off more weight, let’s get technical. The difference between a not-so-heavy tent and an ultra-lightweight tent comes down to materials and design. Brandon Davey, senior designer at NEMO Camping Equipment, explains the evolution of tent frames.

“In the past 20-30 years, everything has gotten lighter through material choices, especially, but also design decisions,” he said. Tent frame designs have evolved from A-frames, to dome tents, to bivy sacks and hammock tents, and new fabrics are always being developed to be more durable, breathable and lightweight, he added. NEMO uses computer-aided design software to find the minimum amount of poles and material they can use to still have a comfortable tent.

“It’s common in the industry to believe that lightweight is synonymous with not as durable, smaller volume for tents, and less features,” Davey said. That’s not necessarily true. However, gear made from ultra-light fabric – fabric that isn’t designed to carry 50 pounds – does have to be treated more carefully.

So, how much will it cost you?

At larger companies, ultra-light gear can be more expensive than standard gear. “It’s a case where less is more,” said Davey. NEMO, for example, factors in additional costs for improved materials and extra time spent on the design process. However, gear from smaller companies devoted to ultra-light gear, like Six Moon Designs and Granite Gear, often costs less.