Whether you're relatively new to the world of backpacking or just tired of shouldering that heavy pack again, everyone likes the idea of carrying a lighter load. Unfortunately, the sticker shock of the latest and greatest lightweight gear can be enough to make people give up on their goals. Replacing all your gear with a slightly lighter version will lighten your wallet far more than your pack, but luckily hiking light is about much more than 1000 fill-power down jackets and $600 tents. In my opinion there are 3 main ideas to keep in mind when trying to lighten up:
1. Take Less Gear
While it sounds obvious, I would argue that this is the area where people struggle the most in regards to lightening their pack weight. The lightest piece of gear is the one you don't take, and this is a huge potential weight savings that won't cost you a dime. So, time to take inventory. If you want to get serious about shedding some pounds, I suggest packing everything you would normally take for a backpacking trip. Now, start unpacking one item at a time and write down each piece and it's weight. I know, I know - we're getting into true gram-weenie territory here, but would you ever attempt to make a budget without listing the actual dollar amounts? Of course not. So get out (or borrow) that kitchen scale or look up what items you can online. And in keeping with the personal finance example, remember that separating your needs vs wants becomes a whole lot easier when you can put a number to them. Not until you realize that your daily coffees are dwarfing the cost of your cell phone bill do you really think of taking a mug, and when you see that your bag of little 'miscellaneous' items weighs in at 2 pounds it becomes a little easier to leave the nail clippers at home.
This exercise is about getting organized and identifying some low-hanging fruit that can be taken care of without much work. There are some pieces of gear that just aren't necessary on a hiking trip, especially if you're trying to lighten your pack. Hatchet? Drop a rock on larger branches to break them. Better yet, just collect smaller deadwood. Extra clothes? If they're just for 'having a clean pair', leave them in the car. Deoderant? Hahaha...
To remove even more gear, try to identify roles that can be filled by other gear you have with you anyway. A classic example would be using spare gear at night as a pillow.
2. Take Appropriate Gear
Obviously there is a limit to how much gear can be eliminated from your pack without compromising safety. Do your research and be realistic about the conditions you expect to face. The type of gear you take should be dependant on the expected temperature, weather, and terrain. Learn proper clothing layering systems for the conditions you expect to face, pack a set of sleeping clothes, and ditch the rest. Will your campsites be fairly sheltered? Consider a tarp. They're generally cheap and far lighter than a framed tent. Unless you'll be sleeping on snow, take the lightest sleeping pad you can fall asleep on. Right around here I'm sure you're noticing that while I won't advocate anything that would compromise safety, I'm absolutely making suggestions that will compromise on comfort. This is an important discussion to have, because ultimately all gear choices are about compromising on comfort in one way or another.
EVERY piece of gear you put in your pack has an automatic negative effect on your comfort while hiking, simply because it weighs something and you have to carry it. Whether the overall impact of bringing that piece of gear is positive or negative will depend on it's usefulness when you actually take it out of your pack. How much time your gear spends in your pack vs out of your pack will swing the scale on whether it's actually adding to your comfort or just being a burden. This will be closely related to the goals of your trip. Andrew Skurka has some great posts on the subject so I won't go into too much detail here. Basically, if the main objective of the trip is actual hiking then your gear choices should enable you to move comfortably along the trail for the majority of your day. In this case, something like a camp chair is going to be carried far more than it will be actually used, and it probably makes sense to leave it at home. Conversely, if the trip will involve plenty of time spent in camp relaxing, then it makes sense to take gear that makes that part of the experience more enjoyable even if it sacrifices some comfort while carrying everything from site to site.
It should also be clear that your gear choices are also dependant on your skills and experience in the backcountry. Good campsite selection skills will allow you to get by with a less robust shelter system, and first hand experience of how your body performs under different temperatures and levels of exertion will allow you to dial in your clothing system. The more experience you have in the backcountry, the less likely you will be to 'pack your fears' along with you on a trip.
3. Take Lighter Gear
Finally we come to the option of actually buying gear. Once you've eliminated unnecessary items and pared down your gear to only what is appropriate for the goals of your trip and the conditions you expect, the only remaining way to further lighten your pack will be to make some upgrades. Between new designs and materials, outdoor gear has come a long way in recent years and most of the innovation has been with ultralight hiking in mind. The biggest weight savings will likely be found by upgrading the 'Big Three' (Backpack, Shelter, Sleeping System).
Can you now get by with a much smaller, simpler, lighter pack?
Are you ready to take the plunge and go frameless? Frameless packs are lighter but won't carry more than 25-30lbs (total) comfortably.
The Osprey Exos 48/58 is a standard on long distance trails for good reason. It's comfortable, full-featured, and reasonably light for an internal frame pack. The Osprey warranty is also one of the best in the industry - this could be the last pack you ever have to pay for.
Gossamer Gear, ULA, SixMoonDesigns and others make framed and frameless packs. Some have removable frames for extra versatility.
Mountain Laurel Designs and Hyperlight Mountain Gear are well known for their durable and light frameless packs.
I've owned (and worn through) an Osprey Exos 48 and the older Exos 46. When the first wore out, Osprey replaced it with the new model for $10
(2022 Update) For my 6250 km hike across Europe I used the Gossamer Gear Kumo 36. I got it on sale for around $140. I've also begun using a Durston 40L pack from Massdrop for trips where longer/heavier resupplies are required.
Will flying bugs be a concern on most of your trips? If not, strongly consider a tarp. Some shaped tarps even feature perimeter bug netting that allows for most of the weight savings of a tarp with most of the bug protection of an enclosed tent.
Do you hike with trekking poles? Use them to support your tent instead of a traditional freestanding tent.
Shelter materials are the biggest area where spending some extra money can shave some serious weight, but it's up to you to decide if the tradeoff is worth it. Shelters made of Dyneema Composite Fiber (formerly known as Cuben Fiber) are as light as they come, but comparable shelters made of silnylon might be found for half the price.
Tarptent and SixMoonDesigns make excellent silnylon shelters that use your trekking poles to save on the weight of tent poles.
ZPacks and several other cottage country companies make shelters out of DCF at the lowest weights possible. They're not cheap.
My first solo shelter was a SixMoonDesigns Gatewood Cape which I bought for $110. With some added bug netting, this shelter got me through the PCT, Te Araroa, the CDT, and the PNT. It's finally begun showing it's age so I recently decided to splurge on a new shelter - a 0.75oz/sqyd DCF ZPacks Hexamid tarp for $314. I expect to sleep under it at least that many nights before it wears out.
A good sleeping bag can last a long time if it's cared for properly, although the initial cost is fairly high.
Higher fill power means a lighter bag, all other factors being equal.
'Quilt' designs that lack a fully insulated bottom are becoming more popular (insulation that is compressed below you is useless).
Use a 3/4 length pad and rest your feet on your mostly-empty pack at night.
If you use a frameless pack, consider a sleeping pad that can be used for structure/padding in your pack.
Western Mountaineering, Katabatic, ZPacks, and Enlightened Equipment all make quality lighweight sleeping bags/quilts
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite and Xtherm continue to be the gold standard in lightweight and comfortable sleeping pads.
My first pad was a Therm-a-Rest Prolite Small. I wanted more than a closed cell mat but was hesitant to commit to a fully inflatable pad incase of a puncture. It lasted three thru hikes before starting to de-laminate from the internal foam insulation. Apparently I'm fairly careful with where I sleep, and likely would have been fine with an inflatable pad.
(2022 Update) I currently use a small neoAir xLite, or sections of a chopped up Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest ($20), or both for freezing temps.
My first sleeping bag was a $140 Mountain Hardware Lamina 35F that saw me through the PCT and Te Araroa. I upgraded to a 20F Enlightened Equipment Enigma for $200 for the CDT and it's now my go-to bag for most 3 season conditions.
Budget Gear Lists
Of course, all this talk of upgrading gear won't mean anything if you're just starting out and trying to make some wise initial purchases. If the initial costs of a full set of gear are prohibitive, check out these great budget gear lists from PMags.com
Under $300 Complete Gear List - Your setup won't be pretty, but it'll get you out there.
Under $800 Complete Gear List - This setup would blend in just fine among a bunch of thru hikers. The sleeping bag and shelter will be the first things you'll want to upgrade, so if you can afford to spend a bit more initially you could avoid buying them twice.