Applicational Hiking: Pocketless Hiking

Greetings Hikers,

This article has been inspired by “Jeremy” who contacted me a short while back to let me know how much the HikeLighter website has been a tremendous help to him in his quest to become a lighter weight hiker. He indicated that over the last year my articles had helped him loose over 30 pounds from his TPW. How awesome is that – and huge congrats Jeremy!

One of the topics he mentioned within our correspondence was how I go about being a pocketless hiker.

I responded to him with a quick three or four paragraph initial-though on the matter and promised him I would post an article going into more detail on it. I have also made promises to others that I would stop talking about gear reviews and focus more on what I am going to call “Applicational Hiking”, which will be where I talk about issues that all of us face as hikers… a “where the rubber meets the road” type of articles where I just share from my experience and personal thoughts on issues. They will be very loose in nature and writing style – very little about in-depth details but a whole lot about actual hiking knowledge and experience – at least my style.

What is a pocketless hiker?

For some long distance hikers I suppose it can mean they are a hiker that does have not have any money to make it to the next town so they have to keep stopping at every trail and getting a temp-job in order to get money to make it to the next town. Sounds like a pocketless hiker, eh!

Ok, so I probably just made that up out of nowhere… sorry about that ;)

So what is a pocketless hiker?

What I mean by a “pocketless hiker” is a hiker who does not have any pockets on their gear. No pockets on their backpack, no pockets on their shirts and jackets, and no pockets on their pants or anything else. In essence, no storage areas for gear anywhere other than inside of the primary backpack pocket.


I would just like to start out by saying that being a pocketless hiker is not an easy task to accomplish – going out for days, weeks, and months without having any pockets to put stuff into. To be honest, the longest hike I have done without going out without a backpack or any gear that did not have pockets was 200 miles. It would be crazy difficult to do a long distance hike such as the PCT/CDT/AT without having any pockets of any kind. Not saying it cannot (maybe it even has been done by somebody, that would be interesting to know if somebody has) been done, but it certainly posses some challenges.

There are at least two main challenges and disadvantages I would like to discuss in regards to hiking without having any pockets.

First is how to carry your water. Some hikers love their large water containers and the use of a water drinking tube. I started off my hiking life with this method. A years later as I started getting close to the SUL weight level I realized that the weight of the plastic tube was ‘unnecessary weight’ so I switched over to using shoulder-strap pouches and putting my drinking water in them.

Late in the 2011 hiking season I started using 1 liter Platty soft bottles and than more recently I have switched over to the Evernew soft bottles (because they fit perfectly on the Sawyer Squeeze water filter – without leaking!!) and stopped using the shoulder-strap pouches. Of course this than presented the problem of wear to put the soft bottles at. Without a drinking tube, that of course means I have to stop, take off my backpack, open up the backpack, pull out my water bottle, take a drink, throw it back into the backpack, close up the backpack, and put the backpack back on. What a royal pain.

Needless to say, after a single hike of doing that, I learned my lesson and learned it well. Eventually I rigged up a system that brought me full circle – I found a cool little connector that allows me to attach a drinking hose/tube into the soft bottles. But, where to put them. Well, unless if I go out and buy a backpack with side pockets, the only other option I have is to put them inside of the backpack. Sigh.

I think this is one of those situations where people would like to use that term “stupid light”. After all, side pockets added to my cuben fiber backpack would only add 12 grams (0.4 ounces) to the weight of the backpack. Given the fact that the drinking tube alone is over two ounces, why would I go that route over just adding a couple of side pockets. I do not know. A rather stupid idea, huh.

While I was trying out the Gossamer Gear Murmur (great backpack by the way, if you need a mid-size backpack) I had the ability to use its side-pockets to store my soft bottle water containers – and wow was that nice! It brought back the reality of just how nice and useful those side pockets can be. I am pretty sure that if I buy myself another backpack they are very much going to have side pockets on them – for nothing else than putting some Evernew soft water bottles in.

Concerning the use of shoulder-straps pockets or attachment points for water bottles: For all of the 2010 hiking season and almost all of the 2011 hiking season I was a major advocate of using them. Towards the middle of the 2011 hiking season I began to question whether there was wisdom in placing that much weight on your shoulder straps.

Allow me a moment to share some thoughts on this issue of weight on shoulder straps. I just want to say right-up-front that this is just all common-sense theory and self-knowledge from hiking a whole lot of miles while trying different ways of carrying water.

The vast majority of us that carry water on our shoulder straps are using either one or two bottles of water. If you use the typical 20oz bottle of water that many hikers these days use, that equates out to a bit over 1 liter of water. That means that you have around 2.5 pounds of water on your shoulder straps.

Now stop and think about this. As a SUL hiker you have less than (if you follow my terminology of hiking category weights) 5 pounds worth of gear, including your backpack weight itself. Add in an additional 1.4 pounds of food per day, if you are a long distance hiker that means you have an average of 7 additional pounds of food. Bringing your weight up to potentially 12 pounds, minus water. So if you take into account your Center of Gravity (CoG) one can reasonably accept that 2.5 pounds of water strapped onto your front shoulder straps is an acceptable amount of weight to off-set 12 pounds of gear on your back/hips. But now lets talk about the day before you get into town where you only have one day worth of food (or if you are not a long distance hiker, just out on an overnight trip) than you are talking about less than 7 pounds in your back/hip and still 2.5 pounds on your your front shoulders (your deltoid muscle and your pectoralis major muscle). I fail to see how you can properly maintain your CoG with this 7×2 ratio (7lbs back/2 front). Based on my personal testing of this over around 500 miles I discovered that once I reached around 9 pounds of weight in my backpack, the 2+ pounds of weight on my shoulders started causing both muscle strain and CoG issues – and neither of them should be taken lightly as a hiker. So as a SUL hiker I began to realize that –for me– placing that much weight onto an area of a backpack that was never designed to hold weight, was something that began to hinder my hiking rather than aid it. YYMV of course.

Second is how to carry very wet gear. This is very much one of those “to each their own” (or as hikers call it: HYOH) issues. Some hikers love having a front pocket on their backpack to put a wet shelter into, or their rain jacket or whatnot. Some hikers like to use a bag liner and than put all of their gear except their wet gear into the bag liner and than place their wet gear on top of the closed bag liner. Others like to put their wet gear in one of the backpacks side pockets. Other hikers use a dry bag and throw anything wet into it and than just throw it right inside of their backpack with all of there other gear.

Suffice to say, very much one of those HYOH issues. But, as a pocketless hiker it leaves you without the option of using a front pocket or the side pockets to help them dry out. This forces you to take a longer break mid-day when it is warm outside, in order to dry out your gear.

For hikers who do not like taking long lunch breaks this can be a rather major issue for them. Unless I am climbing a really steep hill, my lunch ‘break’ might only be three to five minutes. Just enough time for me to pull out my container with pre-soaked food, and my spoon, and than I eat while I am hiking. An art that many long distance hikers pick up. If I am pulling some serious elevation, than I am usually stopping for lunch and helping my body rest and acclimatize. So, usually, for me the whole act of stopping for 30-45 minutes to eat and let my gear dry out is something that pains me.

But without having pockets, how do I get my wet gear dried out?

Well, the answer is I suffer through the mind-ripping-fact that I have just lost another two or three miles of hiking, and I stop for 30-45 minutes and let my gear dry out. What other option do I have? None.

So yet another reason why going without pockets is not a very smart thing to do as a long distance hiker. Hey, I never said that being a pocketless hiker was a smart thing to do!


So what are some advantages and perks of going without any pockets?

I would like to address two advantages:

First is the quest to not loose gear.

If you follow my articles on this website than you know just how precious to me that my gear is. With the vast majority of the gear that I carry being hand-made gear, it is not gear that I can just easily replace.

Furthermore, the lighter and lighter that you get, the more and more you begin to buy/make, and use/carry gear that is multi-purpose. What most UL hikers realize when they become SUL hikers is that while a few pieces of gear might change (they buy lighter weight gear) what it really comes down to is the self-education of using different gear that allows you to use it in a broader set of situations, thereby allowing you to carry less gear, and thus less weight. Common sense stuff here, eh!

So when you are carrying so little amount of gear items, and items that you depend upon to perform multiple roles during your hike, loosing gear is simply not an option. Loosing a single piece of gear as a SUL hiker might not mean the end of your hike, but it sure can put you into a bad situation. Loosing a single piece of gear as a XUL hiker can very much mean that your hike is over and done with, simple because of the safety factors of XUL hiking.

So for me, having gear in “pockets” means a greater risk of loosing gear. Whether those pockets are side pockets, or hip pockets, or a front pocket on a backpack – they increase the potential to loose your gear. The PCT and AT is filled with stories of hikers who have had to backtrack countless miles because they lost something out of their backpack somewhere along the way. Hopefully another hiker picks it up and eventually meets up with you, but sometimes (unfortunately it is all to common) those hikers who have picked up your gear will walk right past you as you are backtracking for your lost gear (almost ever year there are stories of ‘gear thieves’ on both the PCT and AT newsgroups).

Second advantage has to do with where you hike at.

If you are somebody who does a lot of hiking in areas where there are a lot of bushes, ferns, trees with low branches, and so forth, not having pockets (especially side pockets and shoulder-strap pockets) can mean a much easier hike.

Almost every hike that I go on these days is a constant battle between myself and 6 foot tall ferns and horrific bunches of blackberry bushes, that have massively overgrown on the hiking trails. This presents the constant problem of my gear getting snagged on bushes and ferns.

And this is exactly why I made the decision a few years back to become a pocketless hiker. I simply got tired of ferns and bushes snagging my backpack, my jackets, and my pants.

YMMV of course.

Pocketless Clothing:

In the past I have published articles about my clothing. I hike in very light, very loose, and usually very breathable clothing – all without any pockets.

I have over 1,500 miles of hiking on a single pair of the Montbell Dynamo Wind Pants[ref]. I have not hiked a single mile in at least the last three years of hiking wearing anything other than those pants. They are crazy light weight, very loose fitting (nice for wind flowing through them) and through every horrific blackberry patch that the Redwood forest has thrown at me. I have worn them in 116 degree weather (Death Valley, California) and I have worn them in 10(f) degree white-outs (Northern California Mountains) and they have held up amazingly well. And, they have no pockets.

I fail to understand why SUL hikers would want to put weight into pockets on their pants. Part of being a sul/xul hiker is learning that a properly outfitted hiking gear list includes being able to place all of your gear inside/on your backpack so that you are able to properly place the weight of your gear exactly where it is suppose to be. The mechanical aspects and education of hiking is something most SUL/XUL hikers learn. To me, the idea of wearing pants with cargo pockets is an abhorrent aspect of all that is sul/xul hiking. (sorry if that offends anybody – and I do mean that, I do not want to offend anybody, just saying it how I feel it should be). It is why I always shake my head when I see hikers spending $160 bucks for a pair of Gossamer Gear LT4 hiking poles, or $150 bucks for a pair of Ruta Locura Yana Poles (the lightest poles out there) and than going and adding duck tape onto them. Seriously, what is up with that. You spend that kind of money to have the lightest hiking poles in the world, and than you slap some stupid duck tape onto them. Can you seriously find no better place in all of your gear to apply some duck tape. (sorry, mini-rant sort of hit me there)

Enough about pants… lets talk about jackets.

For me, I have a love-addication with the Montbell Tachyon Anorak and the ZPacks wpbcf Rain Jacket. Each of these respective jackets are the lightest jackets in the world for what they are. (I have discovered one wind jacket that is lighter than the MB, but when I study the design of it, it scares me and I would not buy it) So while it is not all about the weight, these two jackets are equally about their design. They are simplistic in nature. They have a job to do and they do it perfectly. There are no frills to them. No extra material that does not need to be on them. No add-on features that just add weight for the sake of PR sales. And, neither of them have pockets.

I can see some serious wisdom in hardshell jackets having a front-shoulder-pocket (aka: a “map pocket”), for the express purpose of keeping your maps in them. But I think the amount of hikers/explorers that actually need this feature is very very small. Mostly those hikers who do massive amount of off-trail hiking (i.e.:  *not* PCT/AT hikers who just follow signs for the most part), or hikers who love doing summit hikes and constantly need access to topo maps, or explorers who are out in the wild hundreds of miles away from the next human being. For the the average joe/jain hiker (myself included) it is simple a feature that is rather unnecessary – as I see it.

And I honestly cannot see any need for hand pockets on jackets. Not in todays hiking world when we have truly exceptional hand wear. For example the eVENT gloves by MLD, or the down mitts and cf over mitts from BRG. If you truly are in a situation where you need a way to keep your fingers warm, a simple little hand pocket on your jacket is not the solution. My other issue with hand pockets on jackets is that the vast majority of jacket makers totally and utterly fail to understand the simple concept that it is stupid to put pockets onto a jacket, when you put the pockets exactly where a hip belt is going to be. I simply cannot count the number of hikers I have passed on trails that had jackets with pockets and their hip-belt covered up their jacket pockets. The only jacket I have ever encountered that did not have this problem was the MB Dynamo jacket – and it solved it by having the jacket be about 6 inches longer than most other jackets, and thus your pockets are placed below where your hip-belt would be. I have seen pictures of some RAB jackets that appeared to have this “extra-long” feature for the sake of pockets, but never seen one in person so I am not positive on this. But regardless, the point is still one that seriously annoys me. Why would I take a jacket with the extra weight of two hand pockets (extra material, extra thread, and zippers, all add up) when I cannot even get to them when I am hiking with a backpack with hip belts. Give that some thought before your buy your next jacket. (sorry again, another mini-rant I guess)

In Closing:

I would just like to close this article saying that all of this is just straight-up my own personal opinions on hiking gear. I am not reviewing any gear here. I am not saying that some gear rocks and some gear sucks, because yet does or does not have pockets. This is just me explaining in my own way what some of my thoughts are about hiking pocketless. Clearly I have said that some of the techniques I have done are just plain flat stupid (because they are) and at the same time I have tried to highlight one some of the reasons for going pocketless make sense. In the end though, there is no perfect gear setup. Not for me or for any other hiker. Most of us find something that work for us and call it good.

I also apologize for my mini-rants. Unlike my other highly researched, highly detailed articles, this one is just all me sharing my thoughts about applicational hiking and hiking theories. Please take it for what it is, just one hiker sharing his thoughts, based upon the type of gear that he hikes, at the base weights that he hikes, in the conditions and environment that he hikes in. I am not writing this to change anybodies mind about anything. If nothing else the process of writing this article has made me realize that some of my own practices the last few years have been very good practices, but some of them have been rather poor practices that either have changed or need to in the 2013 hiking season.

Lastly I just want to thank everybody who follows my articles! HikeLighter has only been around for a short while and this is only my 25th article, yet there are hikers from around the world who contact me almost every day thanking me for the website and asking me to keep going at it. When I stop and think about the amount of hikers that follow my articles it really is amazing to know that a website so new as this one, with so very actual publications, has such a large following. I knew when I started this website that the SUL/XUL world of hikers was rather small, but so many of you who have come over from my previous ventures (youtube/redwoodouts/bpl/hf/etc) have been so amazingly awesome. It really is special and touching to me. Please just continue to bear with me as I continue to grow the amount of articles that are here and the different type of articles that I write. I have been getting a number of folks saying I need to write more about applicational hiking and more about hiking theories – and less talking about gear itself. I totally agree with you and I will work on trying to write more articles of those nature. I am also working on some more very detailed research articles. My last big one (sul/xul one-piece fully enclosed shelters) consumed massive amount of hours of my time. We are talking weeks and weeks of working on them after work. I will probably only be able to do a few of those a year because of the amount of work that they take. Than there is, of course, the fact that I hike, on average, over a thousand miles per year. That takes a serious amount of time and thus less time to write articles. As we get closer to the winter season (I do not hike in the winter season) I will have more time to do some writing, so please contact me if you have any ideas on really in-depth research that would be sweet/awesome/fun to do research and publications on and I will give it some consideration!

Again, thanks everybody!


8 thoughts on “Applicational Hiking: Pocketless Hiking

    1. wow you and me both!!

      What I ended up with was a zpacks zero small with side pockets and a very narrow and short front pocket — just wide/tall enough to stuff my golite chome umbrella and my smd sx shelter and a pair of wet socks into.

      Only reason I went with the side pockets is my refound love of using them for the Evernew soft bottle water bags. But as I mentioned above, at 0.4 ounces for them, it just seems worth the weight.

      Thanks for stopping by Anthony!!

  1. I’ve actually come to a minimal/no pocket style on my own in the last few months. I am by no means a SUL/XUL hiker but I love reading your articles because it help keep my perspective on weight and what I carry and I have to say, I’m in agreement with avoiding pockets. It only took me my very first trip to realize that I hate side pockets on my pack. I can’t get the weight distribution right and it bugs me to no end to be even the slightest bit uneven. I’m still trying to figure out what to do about the water since I don’t like side pockets and hate bladders.

    One question I would have is how do you find jackets that have no pockets in today’s gear market? I know there are a few, but insulation is one place where it’s hard to find something without pockets and not every budget can afford the wonderful but expensive WPB CF Zpacks jacket.

    1. Hello,

      Three primary type of jackets as I see it (as a die-hard layer person, this is how I see it)

      Wind Jacket –
      Insulation Jacket –
      Hard shell Jacket –

      There are a number of Wind Jackets on the market that do not have pockets. I personally think that a wind jacket should not have any pockets at all – even ignoring the context of this article, wind jackets are all about a shell that is at light as possible will preventing cold chills and thus body core temperature changes – such a jacket does not need pockets at all.

      Insulation Jackets can be a bit harder to find without jackets. Especially off-the-shelf ones. In the cottage market there are a few out there. Black Rock Gear Vest comes to mind, as well as GooseFeet custom made jackets.

      Hard shell Jackets without pockets are becoming more and more common, even by over the shelf big-name companies. But as I said above, hard shell jackets are one of those clothing items that I can almost justify a shoulder/map pocket, which sadly more and more jacket makers are doing away with. Guess I am just always going against the norm these days, eh!

      As for budget gear, yes you usually have to end up with the best that you can afford even if it means it is not exactly what you want. I suppose it all comes down to the type of hiker that each of us are. Some are weekend hikers that spend less than 20 nights a year outside. I just do not see any reason for weekend hikers to be dropping big money on high-dollar gear. Than there are those hikers that might spend 25-50 nights a year out on the trail. This is where the need for finding gear that meets your likes/dislikes becomes a bit more important and maybe spending an extra 20-50 bucks for something makes sense. Than there are those hikers that spend 100+ nights a year out on the trail. This is where, I believe, the ability to have access to custom gear makers really finds its purpose. The ability to go out and spend the extra money to make sure that you have gear custom made for you is worth the extra money.

      1. I agree! Wind Jackets seem really silly with pockets. I love that my NF Verto only has that little shoulder pocket which also doubles as it’s stuff sack. It is one of those pieces where I liked the MB Tachyon a little better but got this because with my dividends, coupon and birthday money it was free. I still love the Verto but the choice got made by the money, not me. Still, it’s really good to see big name manufacturers like NF putting out even just a few pieces that are all about saving weight without sacrificing useability.

        For insulation, I really love the MB Ex Light but prefer pullovers or vests. That’s where I guess something like the BRD Vest or Patagonia Micro Puff Pullover would come in. The biggest frustration I have is for some reason I can only find the practical and sensibly designed items in the Men’s department. It’s as if being born a woman automatically means you care more about where you’re going to put your lipstick and what your shoes look like than if it works.

        I am not a 100+ night a year hiker, but I want to be and I only want to buy it once, so I’m starting to think I’d better just save up or make some of this stuff myself!

  2. I do not care for having items in my pants pockets while hiking. I don’t want a phone or wallet bouncing around. I do, however, want my pack to have side and front pockets. I find the pockets too useful to give up.

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