Some people write as if the lightweight backpacking movement of the past decade was never tried before, and that all backpacking before that focused on comfort at the expense of weight.
In the early 1980s, a wave of lightweight backpacking (LB) products swept through the industry for several years, then sank without a trace.
The early 1980s LB fad was a reaction to gear that had gradually acquired many marginally useless features (and more weight), or had been built bombproof for all the wrong reasons (with added weight).
Initially, I was skeptical, because I had finally acquired a bunch of expensive, heavy backpacking gear. Now the industry said "what we told you before was wrong, throw it all away and buy, buy, buy".
Piece by piece, I bought some LB gear, which served me well for many years. But by the 1990s when I needed to replace that worn-out gear, you couldn't find LB gear.
I'm not sure why LB gear vanished, probably for the same reasons it's a niche market today. Today, you can find lots of Internet-based small makers of LB gear, and lots of great LB advice in books and on the Internet.
Even today, it's pretty hard to walk out of REI with a base pack weight under 20 pounds, especially if you listen to the sales people. Even REI.com's "ultralight" section leaves much to be desired.
What was LB gear like in the early 1980s? Most of my LB gear has rotted or worn out, so this is mostly from memory. And many other lightweight products were available then; these are some of the products I owned or knew about first hand.
Let's look at the most important items -- pack, tent, sleeping bag, boots, and stoves.
Alpenlite made a sub-2 pound frameless pack I owned and used for several multi-day trips – the most comfortable pack I've ever used. The most sophisticated material in that pack was a sewn-in-place polyethylene stiffening sheet. Most of the pack was standard polyurethane (PU) coated nylon. That pack had thinly padded shoulder straps, a hip belt, a thinly padded back panel, two small front pockets, and a top pocket. What that pack didn't have was a lot of volume or useless features. With a smaller pack, I took less crap, my pack was lighter, and I was happier. I would still use that pack today if several parts hadn't rotted away.
Now I use an 18 oz Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack.
In 1979 I bought a 3.5 pound Moss Solus 2 tent with a lightweight PU coated rainfly and floor, a mosquito netting body, and one arched aluminum pole. That tent slept two grown men cozily. Unfortunately, the PU coated nylon fabrics used in those days would absorb moisture and break down into urea-related products. The coating would peel so the fabric would leak, and the tent would smell terrible. Eventually I threw it away.
If you wanted to go even lighter, Chouinard made the Pyramid and Megamid tarps, which weighed about 2.5 pounds but could shelter 2-4 people.
I just got a 29 oz Tarptent Moment.
Western Mountaineering has made ultralight down sleeping bags since the late 1970s. I still have one from the early 1980s that weighs about 2 pounds and was good to about 30°F. Combined with the ubiquitous cheap blue foam, you could sleep comfortably for just over 2 pounds in late spring, summer, and early fall.
Now I use a 26 oz WM Megalite, with a 4 oz Gossamer Gear Nightlight pad that doubles as a pack frame.
The original Nike Lava Domes were basically running shoes with boot soles and reinforced toes and heels. My best friend worked in a backpacking shop and raved about them. In 1981, we met for a hike at Pinnacles National Monument, and he brought a pair my size. I literally took them out of the box and hiked 12 miles of rugged trails without a blister! Before that, my boots always required a painful break-in period, and still gave me blisters on long hikes.
Now I wear ASICS GT-2150 Trail running shoes.
I never bought a lightweight stove in the 1980s. The closest I came was the Campingaz Bluet cartridge stove (very similar to this one), which was lighter and simpler than most stoves at the time. Decades later I learned that much lighter stoves like the Trangia and Esbit had been around since the 1930s.
Now I use a 3 oz Esbit pocket stove, but will try a home-made alcohol stove soon.
Now versus Then
Now you can travel even lighter than we could 30 years ago, using new materials like silnylon and inexpensive titanium, new designs, and new travel techniques. But the concept and market was definitely around in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the USA.
Which was probably an echo of an earlier lightweight backpacking revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Many thanks to Warren McLaren's Compass outdoor gear history, Bruce B. Johnson's history of gear, and Monte Dodge's retro outdoor gear.