Jonathan Williams, Cicerone’s Publisher, and Lesley Williams, Cicerone’s Marketing Director, open the lid on some of their secrets for trekking with a light rucksack but still taking everything you need to be comfortable. You can download their checklist here. Why not share your own top tips with the Cicerone Extra readership? First published in 2015, this article has since been updated in 2021.
It was 2012, and the flight from Manchester to Geneva was at its usual bright and early hour – 7am, check in at 5am. On the scales, Lesley’s rucksack came in at 4.5kg, mine at 6kg. We’d missed our target by about half a kilo, but it still wasn’t bad, not for a whole month’s trekking.
We had long wanted to do a month-long trek and the guide to the GR5 from Lac Léman to Nice was coming up for an update, so it seemed the ideal opportunity. (As Walt Unsworth, my predecessor at Cicerone used to say, ‘It's a hard life but someone’s got to do it’.) You can read our trip report and see a video on the Cicerone YouTube channel. We finished the route on schedule and in good shape, having survived blizzards at the very end of August just south of Mont Blanc and all-in-all things went remarkably smoothly. One reason things went so smoothly was the depth of organisation and choices of gear we had finally achieved, after many years of packing rucksacks. Everything we took with us was used, except the bothy bag!
All experienced trekkers have found their own best answers but less experienced people do often ask ‘exactly what do we need?’ so we thought we’d offer the benefit of our experience.
Are there any general principles to apply? Not really, except keep the weight within acceptable levels. It’s more a question of pragmatism. If it works for you it might make the cut. Lighter is naturally better but not at the expense of quality and robustness. Over the years you will doubtless refine your choices of kit, as we have done since 2012. There is no right answer, just be content to choose the best that you can achieve for a particular trek.
Do allow yourself a bit of comfort – you are going to be living with, and in, this gear a lot.
This list applies to treks where you will be staying in mountain huts and valley gîtes.
We’ve both got to a similar point with boots — a pretty good 3-season boot. Solid enough to put a basket crampon on, but generally as light as possible. For the GR5 trek mine were Meindl Burma or their latest incarnation and Lesley’s were Salomon GTX. I have a whole short book to write about Salomon boots, but that’s for another time, and for Lesley they work well. In each case the balance of weight, waterproofness, solidity and comfort are the deciding factors. The essential thing is that you can walk all day, day after day in the boots, without ever getting a blister or other injury related to the footwear alone.
Since our GR5 trek, we have explored many other trekking routes, modifying our choices of footwear accordingly – a Camino trek will not tend to require heavy boots, but beware thinking that a winter sunshine trek (such as the GR131 on Mallorca) will only need good trainers or approach shoes – some of these mediterranean and Atlantic island routes have incredibly rugged terrain, and Jonathan found this to his cost! If it's alpine, then boots are essential. (Jonathan is now a big fan of the Obōz range.)
If you have knee problems, you might want to try Hoka boots. The additional shock-absorbing qualities of the sole transfer far less stress up into the knees. Also, if you have ankle injuries or weakness, try to choose a boot with the sole wider than the footbed, especially at the heel end, as this will improve your stability.
The idea here is much the same as with boots. Light enough that you aren’t carrying extra weight but big enough and tough enough to do the job. They need to have enough places and pockets to travel comfortably but not so many that you don’t know where to find things when you need them. Sometimes the heavier rucksack is more comfortable to carry, but with two sacks of similar comfort; take the lighter.
The critical bits are: decent strapping, sensible adjustments, a pocket under the lid as well as on top, pole and crampon stowage and the capacity to expand in case of any need to carry additional gear. A built-in waterproof covering is worthwhile but a stand-alone one is no worse. If you are using a hydration system, a good pocket and method of handling the pipe is handy. Lesley uses a frameless one – Osprey; mine is currently a Lowe Alpine.
Keeping your kit dry
Even if I can’t arrive dry, I do what I can to ensure that my kit does. So we tend to be a bit fussy on this point. Gear goes in lightweight waterproof stuff sacks, which go inside a bin bag, which goes inside a waterproof rucksack. The waterproof rucksack then gets a waterproof cover. If it’s not likely to be wet, the bin bag gets put away – it's lighter and less bulky than a manufactured rucksack liner. It does sound a bit over-the-top, but it works! And if the rain gets through this lot, it's clearly been an epic downpour.
The other advantage of using a small selection of waterproof stuff sacks is that you can keep everything organised, and get to what you need quickly without rooting through the entire contents of your pack. One for spare clothing, one for waterproofs, hats, gloves and other extra outerwear, the an assortment for mobile chargers, notebooks, etc that you might want each evening, one for maps and guidebooks etc. You decide.
Waterproofs and outerwear
Let’s take this next, but the base layers and fleeces you wear (which I’ll talk about further) also determine what to do here. I see the purpose of waterproofs as keeping weather– be it rain or cold winds – out. This can be achieved with fairly light gear, assuming you take the right base and mid-layers. This is where the weight issue gets a bit extreme. I've used Patagonia and Arcteryx juackets that weigh between 250g-350g; Lesley aurrently alternates between Montane and a slightly lighter Alpkit jacket both about 250g-350g.
You will also need a warm hat, a sunhat and gloves. We use merino wool beanies – warm, light and no bulk, and also take a buff, just for good measure.
We believe that Berghaus’s lightweight waterproof trousers are one of the finest achievements of human civilisation so far.
Base and mid-layers
This tends to be the contentious bit. Long or short? Heavy or light? Two fleeces or one? Over the years answers have evolved for us. One short-sleeved base layer, one long-sleeved (between light and mid-weight), one light- or mid-weight fleece and one gilet. It seems to work: they all get used and we’ve never been too cold, or too hot, for long. Do consider when in the season you are going, and altitude, as this may sway your choices of clothing.
More recently, I have tried taking a trekking shirt as well. It’s comfortable and also smarter in case you find yourself somewhere where a trekking T-shirt is stretching the dress code. But it is definitely a luxury.
The bottom half
For your bottom half you need two pairs of the best socks you can find (three wouldn’t be wrong) and similarly pants. For trousers, two light-weight to mid-weight pairs, one of which unzips around the knee for ventilation. Long trousers and shorts are also options but the former combination tends to cover more situations, although you may find you are carrying the unzipped bottom sections of trousers for most of your trip. Lesley is now a big fan of Montane's 3/4 length 'Dyno stretch capris' – SO comfortable and versatile.
Most huts provide hut shoes but gîtes and hotels don’t. The latest generations of runner's recovery shoes and similar lightweight shoes are remarkable – a couple of hundred grams and comfy. You can walk all day in them, and they survive a river crossing. Sandals are okay, too, but tend to be heavier.
The bothy bag
Okay, we didn’t use it on the GR5 but it was the first thing in the pack and it still is. When you really need it, nothing else will do. If there are two of you, take one big enough for two; the company helps as does shared bodily warmth. I can think of only four occasions in the last ten years when we have had to use the bothy bag – three exposed downpours that nothing could handle and one rescue fairly recently. Don’t leave home without it.
Poles and water
Both of these are a very personal matter. I prefer to have poles, although I don’t always use them. We have found we have been very glad of them when crossing streams or rivers, so definitely not a luxury. When it comes to choosing how to carry your water, a big factor is what your trekking partners are doing. It pays to adopt the same system as using water bottles tends to lead to longer but less frequent breaks, while those using a hydration system plough on regardless. We used hydration systems on the GR5, but had to reinvest in a new one halfway down. Bottles are more adaptable and, as long as you close them properly, safer.
Washing and sleeping
Wash kit should be minimal but functional, light and in a ziplock bag to save weight. Sleeping bag liners are critical for huts, Spend, spend, spend on this: it’s worth it for a light and comfy silk liner. Sleeping bags are quite unnecessary unless you are likely to spend a night out or in an unmanned hut where you don’t know what to expect.
The BIG issue here is what size of trekking towel to take. Make sure it's a decent travel towel that will dry easily and is lightweight – not a normal towel! Bigger is heavier. Smaller is risker. Are you going to dry in the shower or outside? Whichever size you prefer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had it right – take a towel.
Covid 19 pandemic: Note that during 2020, and going forwards while the coronavirus pandemic is still an issue, there are various additional requirements when staying in mountain huts and other accommodation: Essentials are your own shoes to change into, face mask, sanitiser, sleeping bag liner, pillow (if you want one). For ongoing updates regarding travel and health requirements, please refer to this page for walking in Europe.
- Most first aid kits are a good start, but not the whole story. Add more dressings, and leave some of the hard-to-understand bandages behind. But find some high quality, fairly wide tape and take plenty of it. You can repair boots, splint legs, cover holes, preempt blisters, repair leaks, arms and legs, but you do need a reasonable amount. Take surgical tape, and wrap a length of duct tape round a walking pole.
- A tiny pot of Superglue. Ever tried to repair your specs in the middle of nowhere? Superglue will fill in a hole that a bandage can’t.
- Mending kit (available from most good hotels!)
- Spare batteries – for watch, camera, head torch. Charging points are more common and sockets generally available, although there may be a queue to plug in your charging lead in a mountain hut.
- A nailbrush is one of those trekking accessories that works. After your nails, you can scrub your body, your clothes and then your hair. At least four uses – that’s how it needs to be.
- And your wallet and phone should be another ziplock bag.
Take a look at Paddy Dillon's article on Lightweight backpacking, for more advice on keeping your load light, and your trip enjoyable.
Feature · 14 Apr 2015
Lighten that load
Inveterate backpacker and guidebook writer Paddy Dillon warns of the dangers of carrying an over-heavy pack and shares his tips on packing light to make sure you get the most out of your long-distance walk or international trek.
Our packing list, which has been unchanged for nearly four years now, can be downloaded below. There are a few other bits and bobs on it but it does come in at the weights I mentioned at the start of this article. My pack tends to be heavier – only fair, I’m bigger – but I do insist on carrying the bothy bag, first aid kit and the maps and guides for both of us.
Mountaineering gear would be extra – crampons, harness, helmet, slings and via ferrata gear and/or a rope would all add to the weight. Sometimes there is no choice.
We would love to hear your trek-packing top tips. What are your ‘secret weapons’?
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