Some people write as if the lightweight backpacking movement that started in the late 1990s was never tried before, and that all backpacking before that focused on comfort at the expense of weight.
[Original 2010, refreshed 2018]
In the early 1980s, a wave of lightweight backpacking products swept through the industry for several years, then sank without a trace.
The Walkman-era lightweight 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. Starting in the early 1970s, 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 acquired lightweight gear, which served me well for many years. But by the 1990s when I needed to replace it, you couldn’t find lightweight gear anywhere.
I’m not sure why lightweight gear vanished, probably for the same reasons it’s a niche market today. Now you can find many small, Internet-based makers of lightweight gear, and lots of great lightweight backpacking advice in books and on the Internet.
However, it’s still pretty hard to walk out of an REI store with a base pack weight under 20 pounds, especially if you listen to the sales people.
What was lightweight gear like in the early 1980s?
Many lightweight products were available “way back then”; these are some of the items I owned or knew about first hand.
Let's look at the most important items - pack, tent, sleeping bag, boots, and stoves.
I owned an Alpenlite sub-2 pound frameless pack – the most comfortable backpack I ever used until 2012. The highest-tech material in that pack was a sewn-in-place polyethylene stiffening sheet. The pack body was standard polyurethane coated nylon. It had thin, padded shoulder straps, a hip belt, a thinly padded back panel, two small front pockets, a top pocket, and lash tabs on the sides. 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.
In 2010 I backpacked with an 18 ounce Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack, which fell apart soon after. In 2012 I switched to the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider 2400, 28 ounces after some modifications.
In 1979 I bought a 3.5 pound Moss Solus 2 tent with a polyurethane coated nylon rainfly and floor, a mosquito netting body, and one arched aluminum pole. That tent slept two adults with little room to spare. Unfortunately, the polyurethane coating absorbed moisture and decomposed, and the tent smelled terrible. Eventually the waterproof coating peeled off, and I threw the tent away.
If you wanted to go even lighter, Chouinard made the Pyramid tarp, which weighed about 2.5 pounds but could shelter up to four people.
In 2018 I'm still using a 33 ounce Tarptent Moment - not the DW.
Western Mountaineering started making ultralight down sleeping bags in 1970. I still have one bag 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 OK for just over 2 pounds in late spring, summer, and early fall.
In 2010 I used a 26 ounce Western Mountaineering Megalite, with a 4 ounce Gossamer Gear Nightlight pad that doubled as a pack frame. By 2018 sleeping well is more important than lightness, and I carry a 19 ounce Nemo Astro Insulated Lite sleeping pad, under the same sleeping bag.
The original Nike Lava Domes were basically running shoes with boot soles and reinforced toes & 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 heavy leather “waffle stomper” boots required a painful break-in period, and still gave me blisters on long hikes.
In 2010 I wore ASICS GT-2150 Trail running shoes. In 2018 I'm backpacking in the Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4 trail running shoe.
I never bought a truly lightweight stove in the 1980s. The closest I came was the Campingaz Bluet cartridge stove, which was lighter and simpler than most stoves at the time. Later I learned that even lighter stoves like the Mini Trangia and Esbit Pocket Stove had been around since the 1930s.
In 2010 I used a 3 ounce Esbit pocket stove. By 2018 I'd upgraded to a more efficient and much more windproof 1.6 ounce Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri stove system, still burning Esbit tablets.
Now versus Then
Now you can travel even lighter than we could nearly 40 years ago, using new materials like silnylon, cuben fiber, and inexpensive titanium, with new designs and new travel techniques. But the concept and market was definitely around in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the USA.
Many thanks to Warren McLaren's Compass outdoor gear history, Bruce B. Johnson's history of gear, and Monte Dodge's retro outdoor gear.