How to pack extremely light for hiking

Reduce the weight on your back for your next backcountry trek

On his first backcountry hike, Andrew Johnson (Machinist ’04) intended to be prepared for everything. He and a friend were headed out for a 2-night excursion last summer in the pleasantly scenic Skoki Valley near Banff. She was a veteran trekker, a geologist used to hauling equipment and the necessities of life into remote locations.

Johnson, frankly, was afraid.

“I was worried about freezing at night,” says the Machinist program technician. “I was worried about not getting enough calories.”

What should have worried him more was the weight of his pack. Johnson had filled it with bulky clothes, cans of tuna and bottles of water, creating a 60-pound burden on his six-foot-five, 180-lb frame. He finished his first day exhausted. They admitted defeat and thought it best to hike home the next.

But Johnson left the woods that day with a new outlook and has since transformed himself into a serious hiker, never to be brought down by his backpack again. “My philosophy: come down to the gram on everything,” says Johnson, now a frequent backcountry camper. “The quality of your trip and the lightness of that bag are proportional.”

Here’s how he leaves as much as possible behind when he gets away from it all.

how to pack a backpack so it's super lightPacking tricks

In Johnson’s view, reducing weight is a responsibility best shared. That’s why a “packing party” precedes a hike. The night before departure, he and his travel companions meet, dump their bags and redistribute anything meant to be shared.

A tent, for example, can be split into pegs, poles, and the shell and shared. Same goes for a stove and other communal items.

If it can’t be divvied up, it has to be light. A down sleeping bag generally weighs less than synthetic. A Leatherman multi-tool might be cool, but not useful enough to justify its heft. Even a knife is questionable. “People think you need a knife when you go hiking, but for what?” asks Johnson.

After scrutinizing other contents, he considers the pack itself. Though Johnson didn’t compromise on the comfort of his 70-litre bag compared to lighter models, he did remove unnecessary attachments and compartments.

Food and water

“I consume a lot of calories,” says Johnson. “If I don’t get them I start to get kind of woozy.”

Most people would on a hike, which can burn 430 to 550 or more per hour, depending on body weight.

Johnson reduces homemade meals to near weightlessness in a simple food dehydrator. Add hot water to food in freezer bags (no plates or bowls required) and dinner is served in roughly 3 minutes.

Dinner is served in roughly 3 minutes.

Though rice is his go-to carb, he’ll add variety with recipes from A Fork in the Trail, a cookbook devoted to practical, flavourful backcountry feasts. “We make our own food and we feel good and have the energy we need.”

He grabs water – which adds a kilo per litre – on the go from local sources, cleaning it with a gravity filtration system and adding electrolyte tablets if he’s feeling low.

First aid and toiletries

Johnson’s first aid kit comprises a scant collection of Band-Aids, Tylenol and digestive meds.

He packs travel size toothpaste, sunscreen, bug spray and the like, or takes small amounts in reusable containers. In either case, they get shared at the packing party.


Johnson dresses for success in the backcountry, which means few wardrobe changes, and accessories that include little more than a sun hat, well-ventilated rain coat, polarized sunglasses, comfortable hiking boots and inexpensive flip flops for river crossings.

“We don’t take pants.”

On summer hikes, “we don’t take pants,” he says. “You need long underwear for the night, shorts for the day and rain pants. With those 3 things you’ve already got plenty of gear for your legs.” His upper half requires just 2 long-sleeve shirts: one for hiking, one for sleeping. He layers with a vest.

All of it (apart from the vest, which is down) is merino wool – which is warm, breathable, quick drying, and comfortable. The dedicated ultra-light hiker can even find underwear made of the stuff, which Johnson has.

“I don’t know if that’s necessary,” he says, “but why not?”

Andrew Johnson’s favourite backcountry hikes

paradise valley banff national park lake louiseCar camping isn’t Johnson’s idea of a getaway. “There are all these cars, all these people,” he says. “What I really like is peace and quiet and getting off the grid.” Here are 3 of his favourite places to unplug.

Paradise Valley
Banff National Park, Alberta
18.1 km

Plan your visit to beautiful Paradise Valley carefully, as you can encounter early summer snow or the trail may be closed in July and August due to bears. Those who make it will be rewarded with views of the Grand Sentinel, a massive, natural obelisk, and a waterfall known as the Giant Steps – “the highlight of my hiking life,” says Johnson.

Berg Lake Trail
Mt. Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia
23 km

“This is one of the most hiked trails in our neck of the woods,” says Johnson, owing to a lake speckled with icebergs set against a dramatic Rocky Mountain backdrop. Book campsites ahead, he recommends, and consider daytrips to Tobaggan Falls, Hargreaves Lake and Glacier, and the Snowbird Pass. “All are worth the effort.”

The Skyline Trail
Jasper National Park, Alberta
44.1 km

“The name of this hike speaks for itself,” says Johnson. This is Jasper’s highest trail, offering views of much of the park – “a magnificent panorama that I will never forget.” At the Notch, the halfway and highest point, Johnson recalls ptarmigan hidden among the rock, lichens and snow. Since the walk begins and finishes at different points, you’ll need a vehicle waiting at the end.

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