Experienced travellers know that packing light is packing right with suitable lightweight backpack. Even affluent globetrotters find, after years of experience, that travelling is more pleasant, easier, and simply funner without loads of baggage. Going light allows for more spontaneity too. Plus, if you only have a bag or two, you are less likely to experience the headaches (or heartaches) of lost belongings, or simply forgetting what is in each bag...if it takes 20 minutes to find that camera, that rainbow, whale, or special moment will be gone forever.
When you are carrying everything yourself in the outdoors, a couple extra kilos can take a lot of the fun out of your trip, and create other problems. You won't notice those extra few hundred grams here and there when at home packing, maybe, or going to the train station, but after 2 or 3 hiking hours you will. Extra weight means you will go slower, in less comfort - it's that simple.
Not only that: a heavy, bulky, poorly loaded pack can turn even a nimble, sure-footed athlete into a bumbling and clumsy danger to himself at the first bit of scree, ice, or that boulder-hopping stream crossing. A lean, light, thoughtfully prepared sack is quickly forgotten and becomes part of you, allowing you to focus on the task at hand, and stay safe.
Careful planning is essential. This includes making a list over the course of a couple of days (carrying a notepad with you is useful for this). This way you won't forget that tube of lip-balm or some other small item that you could really miss. If you do a lot of backpacking, it is a good idea to have a masterlist to start from, adding or removing items based on the specifics of each trip.
A major consideration is trip length. Unless you can obtain food somehow (don't rely on fishing, berries, or the like), you need to plan your trip length to within a day or so.
Weather is paramount. In some areas, in some seasons, weather can be really stable, and you can reasonably trust forecasts for a number of days. For example, the High Sierra has renownedly stable fall and winter weather, and I've taken longer trips with no tent, trusting the forecast and only my shelled bag, hard shell, and space blanket for protection. Desert areas tend to be the most stable. But, not always. The weather in the springtime in the Mojave can go from a white-out blizzard in the morning to a high of nearly 80 that same afternoon, then to a low around freezing that night.
The more you know what to expect, the better. Do some research and ask knowledgeable people. Most outdoorsy folks LOVE to share info, and also care about one another’s safety, and probably have been in un-fun situations before too. Also, learn to read and understand clouds, and yes, a ‘ring around the moon’ often does indicate wet weather on the way in about three days. Stuff like that. Solitary mountains (such as large volcanoes like Mt. Shasta) have notoriously unpredictable and dangerous weather, as do peninsulas..
Terrain is another thing to think about. Water sources are your number one concern here. You need to know how much water to carry at all times. In some areas this can be a lot...even 4 or 5 liters. Topographical maps (‘topos’) show streams, ponds, and most springs, some wells, etc. Campgrounds, farms, and many other possible sources exist. Since park and “recreation” maps can be worse than useless, get topos if possible. Topos also show major trails, elevations, towns, and other data. Glaciers and snowfields, swamps - in short: everything - are good to know about. Park (even NPS) maps typically don’t show much of anything.
Once you have your topos and know about how long you want to go, you should make some preliminary plans. How fast do you want to (or can you) go? This way you can set goals for each day, possibly planning approximate camping spots, and plan your water supplies. In areas with little water, it may be wise to camp near water, to start each day well-hydrated with full bottles, clean and fresh. In some areas, water supplies may dictate your trip quite a bit. In others, you can carry almost none.
Another thing to consider in the planning stage is “escape routes”..what are the shortest ways back to civilization from the various points of your hike? It is wise to have some idea of this, in case of injury or a major weather change, equipment failure, or something else. Getting to a road, any road, or cabin, mine, fire lookout tower, or something could save your life if there is an unseasonal blizzard, or you are really injured.
Make an honest assessment of how fast you think you can go. Remember that the map is not the territory and many things can slow you down. Also, distances on maps and signs are not correct if the terrain isn't flat. Think about a right triangle. The distance on a map is the base, and the actual distance is the hypotenuse. And, trails aren't usually straight (even topo maps often show only approximate dashes for hiking trails). What you think is 10km might be 13 or 14..
Clothing is survival equipment in the outdoors, and very important. To stay superlight, and remain comfortable and safe, you need to know what you are doing.
Layering is the way to go. The usual breakdown is: baselayer (underwear), mid-layer(s) (insulation), and outer layer (shell). Some garments combine two layers (three if you go commando..heh-heh). Layers are simply added, changed, or removed to stay comfortable.
First off, never leave the arms and legs exposed. Shorts and short-sleeves are a bad idea in the wilderness. (Shorts are fine if you wear them over long bottoms, however.) Sun, bugs, stinging nettle, branches, thorns, rocks are all waiting to damage your skin. You wouldn't notice it, but even just toasting your arms in the sun for a day is a significant drain on your body. Heck, even wind can damage your skin (and certainly sap your strength). And we all love mosquitoes and ticks, eh?
Materials are important. DO NOT USE COTTON. Cotton is not good for backpacking for numerous reasons. It absorbs a lot of water (and dirt), it is very hard to dry, it is heavy, bugs can bite through it, it is less durable than nylon or wool, and it can chafe your skin...oh, and it can get really stinky fast. As a general thing, Polyesters and nylons probably offer the best combination of function, weight, comfort, durability, and price. These synthetics dry quickly, absorb little water, are comfortable, and don't get (that) stinky. You can rinse out a synthetic garment in a stream, wring it out, hang it from a tree, and be wearing it again quickly. Nylon shells tend to offer abrasion and moisture resistance, and some are windproof.
High-grade wool (like Merino) is nice for underwear, but it is expensive and does hold a little water. Silk might be ok for underwear, but I've not tried it. Things like wool sweaters, while being pretty warm, and having other good qualities, are pretty heavy. If you knew for sure you'd be wearing it the whole time, then it might be good. Wool breathes very, very well, and has a wide temperature range, is tough around rocks, and looks good in a pub. And wool doesn’t seem to retain body odor, either. The lightest breeze can chill you, however. (There’s that breathability tradeoff again..) And it readily snags on...anything.
Down, well I love it. It is superlight, super warm, and super compressible. It is also good for a pretty broad range of temperatures. However, you must keep it dry..if it gets wet, you might be in trouble. And you can't allow its containing fabric (which is typically quite thin and fragile) to be ripped..the down could quickly pour out. It is probably best (safest) to use in sub-freezing temperatures, since snow has to melt first before making anything wet (that, and snow is 90% air too), and also you will sweat much less when it is cold out.
That said, I use down all the time and have few problems. One time, experimenting with a “highly water resistant”* wind shell over a down sweater, well, it got quite wet in one of those squalls you get in coastal climates sometimes.
There are also spun synthetic fillings used in insulation and sleeping bags that work like down, but they are heavier and less compressible. If you expect to be in a lot of cold, wet situations, you might consider them, since in theory (and in ad copy….) they work ok when wet. But you know, in those kinds of conditions, if you are hiking, you aren't going to get that cold... I think fleece (or wool) mid-layer for those kinds of temperatures is probably better, since they definitely work if they get wet. So, it seems to me that fake down has a narrow spectrum of (backpacking) uses. (If weight and compressibility aren’t factors, sure, why not?)
As technology advances, I would expect spun synthetic fillings to close the gap with down, but they aren’t that close now, except being cheaper. These fillings also do not have the long-term durability of down. Down can retain most of its loft for even over 20 years! It’s a worthy investment, and that’s yet another reason to add to my ‘reasons for loving down list.’
In short, until you gain experience with shells and different conditions, it is probably best to use down mid-layers only for sub-freezing conditions. That said, its broad temperature range doesn’t rule out carefully using it in other situations.
I usually use an ultra-light (aka: silkweight) or lightweight long-sleeved shirt and pants made of polyester or wool. I don't want to advertise but Patagonia’s Capilene material is very reliable, tough, and comfortable, they also make a (pricey) wool blend in these weights. You want snug, form-fitting underwear. A zippered turtleneck is nice, but the lightest weights don’t always come in that style. For a longer trip you can bring a change, but in fact, you can rinse these out in a stream and they will dry very quickly. For temperatures below freezing, I’d go heavier on the bottoms, perhaps going to a light fleece (Patagonia’s ‘R1 Tights’ were nice but are now discontinued, last I checked). To my mind and for my ‘system,’ there is no need for a heavyweight undershirt for recreational backpacking or light alpinism.
Medium-heavy wool or wool-blend socks, possibly with a thin polyester liner sock, are pretty standard. You need to cushion and protect your feet, regardless of the temperature. Wool, as mentioned above, doesn't get stinky and you can go at least 5 days per pair (or just change the liners), nonetheless, a backup pair of socks is probably a good idea for longer hikes. You should dry your socks out at night.
It might be a good idea to have a thin, stretchy hat to put under a big warm one when it is particularly cold. They say you lose up to 90% of your heat through your head, so don't neglect warm hats. Also, laying in your sleeping bag on a cold night, it is nice to have something on your head. For sun protection, also I highly recommend some kind of brimmed hat. This way you can avoid using nasty (and hard to wash off and fabric staining) sunblock. Lots of options here, but remember that your shell has a hood so…
This is what keeps you warm. Fleece is popular, durable, fairly inexpensive, and comes in all kinds of weights and styles. Or a down sweater, or a wool sweater, or some kind of lumberjack shirt (NO COTTON!!), … Many combinations are possible but make sure it all layers nicely before going!
However, things like loosely ‘cable-knit’ wool sweaters, or some heavy P-coat or trench-coat monstrosity or something else that weighs like 2 or 3kg(!) is only useful while you are wearing it. Therefore, unless you are 100% sure you won’t have to carry it, this guide's word is an emphatic “nay.” Spending effort (and money!) on packing light, making sacrifices, and then having to lug a heavy coat around when the sun comes out just doesn’t add up.
These don't matter much, honestly (NO COTTON!!!). You want something that won’t snag on branches, though, so I recommend a smooth surface fabric. Legs do tend to encounter more stuff to defend against. For a really rough environment, Black Diamond Equipment and others make some very tough climbing pants, but they are heavy and probably overkill for most backpackers. Here again, if you won’t take them off, the weight isn’t that important, anyways.
You want to keep the neck protected from cold, wind, sun, and bugs too. Many fleece jackets and some baselayers have zippered turtlenecks or at least high collars. Of course many shirts have collars, but these aren’t always very functional. If you don't have anything, use a bandanna or handkerchief in the summer and a thin scarf of some kind in the winter. Again, cover your skin as much as possible. The neck is very sensitive.
Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, I very rarely use gloves. There are times when I wished I had them, but if I summed up those times, divided it by the number of miles travelled carrying the extra weight, I don't believe it would have been worth it. Or something like that. If you want gloves, get some! Or mittens. Since I'm not using hiking poles, I just put my hands in my pockets, or occasionally under the armpits. When you do use them, it seems like you are always taking them off, and they are also VERY easy to lose.
All shell technologies currently available have problems. Hard shells don't breathe well (in many situations, effectively none), making you wet in sweat. They are a bit heavy (and expensive.) They are 100% wind- and waterproof, however. The plastic shells are much cheaper and lighter, but don't breathe at all. Things like ponchos, umbrellas, and rain capes all are worthless against wind or wind-blown rain (bugs too).
All shell tops should have adjustable waist cords, hoods, and wrist openings. Most of them do, but just check. It is hard to imagine why manufacturers make shells without hoods. YOU WANT A HOOD -- YOU GOTTA HAVE A HOOD!!! In cold weather, the waist cord is important to prevent losing precious heat from the billows (‘chimney’) effect. And you may want to pull the arms up to your elbows, some shells don’t allow for that, either.
Soft shells can be divided into two main types. Light (~112-280 gram (~4-10 ounce) range) wind shells, and much heavier lined ones. These are not waterproof, but they are (at least very close to) windproof and fair to decent in moderate snow, light rain, and heavy mist.
I see no reason for a backpacker to buy a lined soft shell, since it limits the versatility of having two separate layers. Also, note (again) that manufacture claims are dubious regarding the true “water repellency” of many of these kinds of shells, and any “durable water repellent treatment” claims are, in my experience, a sham. Therefore be extra careful (again) choosing insulation when using them.
It’s a crazy, confusing field of gear and claims out there, and the “soft shell” term has been badly abused. Therefore you need to find out what works. Just remember that even if you do get wet (and you will eventually) that this stuff can dry out fast, as can your own skin. And remember too, that if you had soaked yourself in a sauna of your own juices in a hard shell, it probably would still have been worse..
If it's cold enough to snow, moisture problems with soft shells go away. Snow does get repelled, and snowy conditions tend to be dryer (lower humidity), and snow doesn't melt that fast so you can brush or shake it off. Little moisture gets in, and sweat is “breathing” out. A win-win. (And you are sweating less anyways.) You can also safely use down as a midlayer.
Other good things about a wind shell include insect and sun protection. You can wear one of these over just your baselayer (or your skin) in the heat of the sun, or during attack by mosquitos. Or just for the wind. You should always carry one of these, it is the single most useful thing you can carry next to your water bottle. Absolutely, 100%, for sure~
There are new technologies coming out all the time, and you hear different things. But, as of Spring 2015, there is no perfect solution for precipitation when you are backpacking. The biggest challenges are chilly, rainy conditions with high humidity, where you can become genuinely chilled by being wet.
Here is my solution. Firstly, if I feel confident in the weather (good forecast and knowledge of local weather tendencies), AND the trip is short (in duration and distance from trailhead), AND daytime temps are reasonable (mid-40s and up (>5C), say), I bring a wind shell, and just wear a light fleece top. (In other words, I use a “soft shell system.”) If an unlikely storm rolls in, time to either hunker down, or a wet hike directly out of the wilderness (or to some known shelter), but it's never come to hiking out for me yet. If it’s just a passing shower, or a bit of hail or something, just keep hiking. In moderate temps, as long as you keep moving, you aren’t going to get all that cold under the wind shell, and may even welcome a bit of precipitation.
Otherwise, I bring a hard shell, and the wind shell. I use the wind shell until it becomes necessary to get the hard shell out. At that point, I typically will look for a sheltered spot, set up my tent, or something pretty soon, since I don’t really want to sweat very much under a hard shell.
However, the lightest hard shells these days are down to 7 ounces (200g), and if you feel the above advice is too radical (or anyways, unorthodox) always bring one.
By now, you have some idea how I feel about hard shells. I don’t like them, since I don’t like soaking in sweat. I pretty much carry them only on longer trips for sustained rain in chilly temps* when I can’t find (or take the time to find, maybe) shelter or a good bivy site. In colder temps and snow you don’t want one over down insulation, and in warmer, sweatier temps you don’t want it either. So, essentially, a hard shell mainly falls in the hunker down category, when you’d probably be better off just stopping and covering up best you can, or even calling it a day. (Apologies for some repetition here and elsewhere on this stuff.)
*These conditions are not very common, luckily. Serious rain seems more common in warmer weather.
Just the other day I vigorously climbed a local 800 meter hill in light snow (air ~25F (-4C), humidity <30%), wearing a thin baselayer, a down sweater and my hard shell...BIG MISTAKE! The down insulation became soaked from sweat...those are chilly, dry conditions, my friends...with about 2 pounds on my back.
If Gore-tex can’t “breathe” in those conditions, oooh, wait’ll you see what it does in warmer, wetter weather, with a full pack... No Fun! Better to just keep the wind off, and let the moisture continually evaporate. You are sweating anyways and the rain probably feels pretty nice!
Regarding shell bottoms? Well, you know, I don't own any. The combination of polyester baselayer and nylon pants just doesn't really hold water...it has NEVER been an issue. Legs don't really sweat or get all that cold.
There will eventually be times when you will get wet. When it stops raining, find a dry (ideally sunny and slightly breezy) spot and just take it all off for an hour or so, hang it from trees, drape it on bushes, etc. Assess any damages. Meanwhile, get a little sun, and have lunch, a nap, or even crawl into your sleeping bag. Then, put yourself back together and get on with it.
And, be so glad that you didn’t bring anything made of cotton, and all your important stuff is in all those plastic bags.