7 Simple Gear Swaps to Lighten Your Load

Jeff Garmire

Whether they know it or not, most backpackers want to save weight. They might not realize this until they’re a few days into their trip—or even a few miles—but when you carry less on your back, you can go farther with more comfort. There’s certainly a way to bottom this out. When you cut extreme amounts of gear, you sacrifice comfort on the trail and at camp. 

But oftentimes, it is not about buying new gear, but rather simplifying the old systems. This can fall under a few categories, including finding multi-use items, unnecessary items, and smart gear swaps that lighten the load and can smooth out the intended use. 

These are my best tips for gear swaps, weight saving, and ditching what you don’t need. Remember that all of these suggestions can be modified, attempted, or ignored based on your own personal hiking style and comfort. There’s no perfect gear strategy, and chances are it will take a lot of trial and error to get it right. 


Water Bottle vs Hydration Bladder

Gear Swaps - Smart Water Bottles vs Bladders - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips

When it comes to volume, a hydration bladder is the simplest and most obvious option. But bladders, with their heavier plastic, hoses, and complex seal systems can add weight and effort to your hydration system. Opt for two one-liter disposable water bottles, and refill them at sources. Water bottles can be easier to fill as well, since you won’t have to unpack your bag. As a bonus, you’ll always be able to see how much you have left and not be startled by sucking on a dry hose. 


Bandana vs Camp Towel 

Gear Swaps - Bandana - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips - Jeff Legend Garmire

This is a great example of a multi-use item. While I don’t recommend using one bandana for everything, you’ll never regret tying a bandana to your pack. I’ve used this to wipe dirt from my gear, sweat from my face, and to clean out my cook pot when I decide to cook meals in the backcountry. A bandana can be put under a hat to limit sun exposure and aid in the backpacker baths taken at creeks. For 1$, this may be the most useful item for the price. 


Tyvek vs Ground Sheet 

Gear Swaps - Tyvek Ground Sheet - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips

Many tent manufacturers sell pricey ground sheets made from high-tech materials. A ground sheet can be helpful on rugged trails where you’ll be pitching your tent on abrasive ground, but a cut sheet of Tyvek can actually do as good a job as an expensive ground sheet — if it’s good enough to protect a house, it’s good enough to keep the bottom of your tent from ripping. Home improvement stores have giant rolls of the stuff. Just cut it to size, and throw it through a wash cycle in your washing machine (no detergent!) to help soften it up. The white Tyvek also makes a great canvas when attempting to secure a hitch to a resupply.

Ziplock vs Stuff Sack 

Gear Swaps - Ziplocs Stuff Sacks - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips

Stuff sacks are imperative to a backpacking setup, although most of us don’t need as many as we carry. Save money and a few ounces by seeing what smaller goods you can stash in Ziplock bags instead of pricier, fancier stuff sacks. I take one large stuff sack for my small, loose items, then stash everything else in a collection of Ziplocks. Avoid the ones with the zipper tracker, and go for the simpler variety… less to break and catch on other items in the pack. 

Stoveless vs Cooking 

Gear Swaps - Stoveless Cold Soaking vs stove - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips

There’s nothing like a hot meal at the campsite after a long day of backpacking. But for those looking to streamline the process, going stove-free has its benefits. Ditching the stove, pot, and fuel saves weight and time in camp. It also means collecting less water at the end of the day, and fewer items to attempt to keep clean. It can also help you get out of your ramen rut — try packing foods you hadn’t considered for backpacking. If the weather is cool, a block of cream cheese, tortillas, and a pack of bacon bits make a satisfying wrap. If cooking is a necessity, try packing food and items that simply require boiling water. Even cooking noodles in a pot gets it dirty. Instead, sealing off a container of Minute Rice and boiling water will cook itself. Then it is easy to add sauce, seasoning, and substance. 


Specialty Tent Stake vs Trowel 

Gear Swaps - Smart Water Bottles vs Bladders - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips

Digging a six-inch cathole is a lot easier with a trowel. Ask anyone who’s fought with a stick and rock in tough ground. That said, if your tent takes stakes are durable enough, you don’t need to pack a trowel as well. Replace one of your tent stakes with a beefier version that doubles as a trowel, and get a two-for-one. 


Clothes Bag vs Camp Pillow 

Gear Swaps - Stuff sack vs pillow - Lightweight UL Ultralight Backpacking Tips

There are a lot of camp pillow fans, which is absolutely fair. Inflatable pillows weigh just a few ounces and can make a huge difference in the quality of sleep. But for those who don’t mind a few lumps, spare clothing works just fine as a pillow. You can even find a stuff sack with a softer lining, perfect for turning inside out at night.

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I love the HydroBlue filter I got from you, with 1 bag for dirty water and 1 light weight disposable bottle I can hike for days. My favorite clothes bag/pillow is the soft flannel that a set of sheets comes in.

Jim T

Jim T

Thanks for the great suggestions . Keep sharing . A lot of the stuff I learned from others over the years.

As far as bladder versus bottle goes for base camp I use the Be- free set up . No odd gaskets, hoses ,or ridiculous bite valves . I use a length of cord to hang the bag upside down from a tree making it much easier to draw water. The Be Free filter works much faster than the Sawyer and is much less prone to clogging . On trail I’ll use just one plastic Smart Water bottle outside and the Be Free bladder unfilled inside. That way I can filter water if needed so I never run out no matter the distance hiked. The cap on the Smart water bottle is easily replaceable as is the bottle itself.

I usually wear a Buff for a number of reasons . I find it to be much more versatile and durable than a Bandanna. I bring along a very small Camp towel for cooking only as I can lay out my utensils or snacks on it etc.

Stuff sack hands down for storage. Zip locks break on trail and leave a mess or get your supplies wet. I use the Zpacks Cuben Fiber roll top. They are 100% waterproof and are tough as nails. I also use Gossamer Gear lightweight clear pack liner bags assembling them into larger blocks than small individual sacks. In the back pack I use a Cuben Fiber pack liner so all the gear is waterproof as well.

I’ll bring my Stove on the trail thank you. A hot meal at the end of the day is priceless to me. I use the Soto which is in my opinion the best for fuel usage and wind resistance.

I’ll also stick to my inflatable pillow from Sea to Summit. I be used stuff sacks many years before and they are uncomfortable as all get out.

Hope this helps.



If I have enough extra clothes to make a pillow I generally have too many clothes. I use my pumpsack to store everything that needs to stay dry, w/ the added bonus that I can squeeze all the air out of it through the vent, compressing my stuff really small.

Antsy Hikes

Antsy Hikes

Ziplock bags are not valid alternatives to true stuff sacks. Sure, Ziplock bags can hold items very well, but the ziplock closure is no match to a real stuffsack’s closure. If you don’t mind the bag opening at any point in time then Ziplock bags are ok, but if you’re a fan of stuff sacks that stay shut you’ll have to go beyond the Ziplock bag…..



I use zip lock bags all the time. They are very light weight and more importantly you can see the contents. That’s really nice for small objects like those in first aid kits or socks in a bag filled with other clothing. I buy bird seed In 5 pounds plastic clear bags and reuse them for packing both food and clothing. Again easy to see through.

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