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Staying Lean and Mean: 12 Tips for Lightening Your Pack Load

Posted by Michael J on

Staying Lean and Mean: 12 Tips for Lightening Your Backpack Load

"To take, or not to take. That is the question!"

People usually keep all their emergency supplies contained in a backpack or duffel bag because it's a win-win either way: if you need to stay inside your home then you know where everything is, and if you have to leave your home then everything is already packed and ready to go. The big question is: How much can you realistically carry if you had to leave on foot? If you don't think weight is a big deal, try loading up a bag with 70 lbs and see how far you get. Bonus points if you make it through hills, rocks, and wet terrain. Just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can carry it.

As a very rough guideline, carry no more than 20% of your body weight. This is debatable by a myriad of factors, but I've read some articles that say you can go up to 40% of your weight, and that's just not realistic. Currently, my bag is 29.2 lbs without water ( does include food). I would plan on carrying about 8 lbs in water weight, so being 195 lbs, I'm right where I want to be around 37 lbs. People are astonished when they find out how comprehensive my bag is at that weight, and it's all because I followed the right steps with the right mentalities.

I'm not a gram-weenie (people who cut the corners off their maps to save weight), but weight does matter and you can either learn this the easy way or the hard way. Easy is easier than hard. Let's review some tips for lightening your load (keep in mind that this is strictly from a disaster scenario standpoint -- totally different ballgame than camping/hiking):

1. Get Rid of Bad Mentalities

Ditch that mentality of "I have it so I might as well throw it in", or "I spent a lot of money on this, so I have to use it". This can get you in a lot of trouble! Once you've rid yourself of those mentalities, then ask yourself if you really need each item you have left. Sorry, but you'll have to accept the fact that you may have bought/acquired items that are just not feasible. This topic could go on forever, but since everyone's personal needs are different based on their location, age, knowledge, health, etc., there is no "right answer" for everything. Understand that your goal is to survive, not to recreate your entire house out of a backpack and live a luxurious life. I tell people to limit their luxury/morale items to just one -- for me it is a mini deck of cards, and for others it might be an mp3 player, bible, or a small photo album. But remember, nothing "weighs nothing".

2. Make a "First-to-Ditch" Section

There are certain items that you should include that could be invaluable in the right situation, but may be entirely negligible in other scenarios. What I've done personally is group all these "situational" items in one section of my bag. The purpose of this is to separate them so if an emergency situation should arise, I know quickly which items I needed to assess without going through my entire bag. If I don't need it, I'll ditch it and lighten the load. In theory, everything in your bag has a possibility of not being needed (you could be stranded in a food distribution warehouse), but it's good to identify in advance which items are more likely to require assessment. Truthfully, I don't think there is any disaster scenario that would require me to carry every single item I have in my bag, so I know for sure that I can ditch a couple pounds no matter what happens.

3. Make a "Personal Carry" Section

There are certain essential items you may want to keep on you at all times (on your person, not in your bag). These are usually things like your watch, knife, whistle, compass, flashlight, etc. What I've done is put these items in a small pouch and attach it to the outside of the pack. If I have a couple minutes to breathe in a disaster scenario, I'll put these on and toss the pouch. If I have to run out in a hurry, at least these items will stay attached to the bag and I will put them on when I have a chance to settle. Doing this not only saves some weight off your back, but also allows you to keep your important items attached to you in the event you get separated from your pack.

4. MRE's Over Dehydrated Meals

There's two reasons for this. First, many people gravitate towards dehydrated pouches because they're lighter. But are they really lighter? Those packages are light by themselves, but most do not consider the other things you need to make them! Let's do some math here on weight-to-calorie ratios:

Dehydrated Meals

2-Serving Dehydrated Food Pouch (~650 Calories) = ~4.5 oz

Water Needed (1.5 cups) = ~12.5 oz

Calories per oz = 38.2


2400 Calorie MRE = 16.0 oz

Calories per oz = 150.0

Also consider the tools you may need to prepare the dehydrated meals:

Boiling Pot = ~7 oz (varies depending on size/metal type)

Mini Stove = ~4 oz

Fuel Cannister = ~8 oz

Total = 19.0 oz

The second reason to use MRE's is that you do not have to exhaust your water supply to eat. Water may be scarce in some scenarios and may need to ration it as much as possible. Sure there are many other factors involved here (you may cook over a fire and don't need a stove/fuel, you have limitless access to water, etc.) but either way, MRE's will win for the most calories-per-ounce because if you exclude the water/tools weight from the dehydrated meals, the MRE's still win by just a hair. I will say though...the dehydrated meals definitely win the taste-test.

5. Bladders Over Bottles

Bottles alone can get quite heavy. Bladders have become the new standard for carrying water, so much that nearly all backpacks are now "hydration compatible". Although bladders are not as puncture-resistant as bottles, they are still remarkably durable because they have some "give", and most repairs can be performed with a piece of duct tape (even though I've never ever experienced a puncture or burst). When carrying a fairly heavy load, it can be a pain to constantly have to take off your pack and do a little dance every time you want a sip of water, so bladders are also much more convenient and don't slow down your pace as much. In addition, bladders are ideal for proper weight distribution because they are almost always placed flush against your back. Likely being the single heaviest item you will carry, this is exactly where you want it to be placed. Carrying bottles on side pockets or strapped to the outside of your pack can make them feel a lot heavier than they are.

6. Bags Over Boxes

Organization is a good thing, but it shouldn't come at the cost of increasing your carrying weight. There's a plethora of lightweight organization systems out there, usually lightweight nylon packing cubes/pouches. Those can add up in price though (usually about $10-$20 a pop), so a cheaper solution may be basic Ziplock bags. Avoid using heavy duty cases as they sometimes weigh more than the contents you've put inside (and take up more precious space) unless you absolutely need impact resistance for some reason.

7. Tarps Over Tents

An emergency situation doesn't call for luxury. If you need to stop and sleep for the night, your only priorities are to keep warm and keep dry -- that's it! Sure, safety plays a part in this too, but a 10-pound tent is not going to provide any more protection than a tarp in normal conditions. It may provide some psychological sense of security being in an enclosed dome, but it won't stop a bullet or a bear claw from tearing it down. A tarp is significantly lighter than any tent out there. If you're in a bug-infested area, adding a bug net to the mix will still be much lighter than a tent. Assuming that you're not permanently hunkering down and waiting for the disaster to pass, you'll be on foot most of the day, and the lightened load to increase your pace will be far more valuable than a false sense of security at night. Naturally this varies based on where you are (i.e. if you're in freezing high-wind temperatures, a tent may be unavoidable) but generally speaking in an average climate, your tarp will be fine. On a side note, it's much faster to pitch a tarp than it is to pitch a tent, so setting up camp quickly or needing to leave in a hurry is much more effective with this method.

8. Avoid Too Much Redundancy

If I hear "two is one, one is none" again, I'm going to scream. And I only hate this statement because some people take this way too far. This can significantly increase your load weight if you're not smart about the items to which you are applying a redundancy rule. Generally speaking, this redundancy should only apply to light-weight items that are absolutely essential. It's not a bad idea to carry two lighters, but carrying 11 knives and a 150 batteries is pointless. Also, I've noticed that many people carry redundant items in fear that their primary tool will fail. Although higher quality usually comes at a price, it can save both weight and money in the long-run if you invest in a higher-quality piece of equipment that is less likely to fail, lasts longer, and gives you confidence to rely on it so you don't need three backups.

9. Carry Multi-Purpose Items

Along the same lines as #8, most items you carry should serve more than a single purpose. For example, they have ponchos that can be converted into shelter tarps. Instead of carrying a screwdriver, pliers, wire cutter, small knife, and small saw, consider a multi-tool that covers all these tools. Instead of carrying a flashlight, radio, and phone charger, get a crank radio that does all three. You get the idea, but always ask yourself if each item can be used for more than one thing. The only warning I will give about this is that sometimes when you buy items that combine all these into one, certain features can lose some quality or function. For example, you may not want to rely on a button compass that came attached to your knife. For a really vital item such as this, it may be good to apply the redundancy rule and use the multi-function inferior item as your backup. Just a thought...

10. Don't Buy the "Overkill" Version of Items

Don't buy something that is more than you need. Many companies like to make their products feature-rich, or design it for the people that prefer to admire it on a shelf rather than actually use it. If you're picking out a knife, don't get a 14" blade just because it's awesome. Buy items that well-serve the purpose for which it is intended and nothing more, especially if it adds weight (even an ounce).

11. Hygiene Matters...Kinda

You needed to get out of your house from an emergency situation and are now hours away from home. You realized that you forgot your deodorant. You stink, but you'll live. Hygiene matters, but it is not essential (medical items are separate from this). You don't need to carry around a big bottle of soap and shampoo, nor do you need a portable shower system. I carry a travel toothbrush, travel-sized toothpaste, and travel-sized deodorant for a more compact hygiene kit.

12. Don't Over-pad, Over-protect, or Over-insulate

Not really sure why, but many people build their emergency packs assuming it's going to be thrown off the Grand Canyon, then submerged under water for a week before going into an industrial wood chipper. If you ever needed to use it, it would spend most of its time sitting on the ground, or on your back. You may have to drop it a couple times, but most bags can handle this. My philosophy on this is (as I've said before): Get a backpack with a durable exterior, and save the weight on the interior. Because you should be carrying softer items such as clothes, sleep system, etc., these should provide ample padding in itself if you organize your gear correctly and take advantage of this. Using a backpack with heavier material and an internal frame will usually add about a pound or two to the pack weight, but adding tons of padding, plastic/metal boxes, and containers/sheaths will add much more. Also, don't worry too much about water-proofing unless you are in an area that poses high risks to flooding. I suggest putting your electronics a waterproof bag, but everything else will survive if it gets a little wet. I use a backpacking style backpack for my bag and line the inside of the main large compartment with a contractor bag and tie it up -- this should be more than enough. This is all advice I received from someone who is a former Navy SEAL, Counterintelligence Special Agent, and survival trainer.

Final Thoughts

It goes without saying that reducing your weight is best accomplished with the right state of mind. Always choose the lightest option if it is of equal quality. Unfortunately, some things that reduce weight can significantly increase the cost (i.e. a stainless cooking pot may be about $15, a titanium one may be $70), but there are always ways to stay cost effective with this mentality. Most people tend to start off their emergency bags with inexpensive items and/or items they already had, then slowly go through an upgrade process. If this is you, consider the weight of your upgrades in addition to the quality. I ended up taking all my leftovers and made a secondary bag to keep in my car.

As mentioned in #5, it's not just the weight in the bag, but also how you pack the weight. See my blog about this [ here] for elaboration.

In conclusion, some weight is unavoidable, but it's the little things that add up. There's a saying that goes "Worry about the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves." Thanks for reading as always. Be safe, be prepared, and stay light!

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