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Interview with Mike Clelland!

A lively chat to introduce a new feature coming up on Backpacking Light: Mike's Ultralight Tip of the Week!

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by Addie Bedford | 2011-04-15 16:00:00-06

An Interview with Mike Clelland! - 1
Mike's self-portrait.

Addie: Mike, you've got a new book out! Can you tell readers who may not be familiar a little bit about yourself?

Mike: Why yes, Addie, that is an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked.

I’ve been juggling the role of outdoor educator and illustrator for the last 17 years, and the two careers end up contributing to each other. Most of my teaching experience is with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and most of my illustration work has been doing instructional cartoons for books and magazines with a focus on camping, skiing, and climbing.

My introduction to lightweight backpacking came in 2005, when I received a phone call from Don Ladigin. He wanted me to do the illustrations for his book LIGHTEN UP! My first reaction was to say “No, thanks,” because I had just finished a series of instructional outdoor books, and they all ended up requiring hundreds of cartoons. I was sort of burned out. But, after talking with Don and reading his manuscript, I realized that this would be a really fun project, and I eagerly took on the job.

It’s actually pretty hard for me to draw things that I’m unfamiliar with, so during the process of drawing the cartoons for Don, I bought a few key pieces of gear and started doing little overnights in my backyard (Grand Teton National Park). I was immediately blown away by the simplicity and freedom of the lightweight techniques. From that very first one-night solo experience, I became a sort of crazed zealot about shaving ounces, which continues to this day.

Up until Don’s phone call, my outdoor pursuits revolved around mountaineering, telemark skiing, and rock climbing. All of those activities require a lot of gear, and I didn’t realize how the big backpack can subtract from the core experience of being outside in the wilderness. The lightweight mindset changed everything, and now that I’m inching up on 50, I’m reveling in the advancements in techniques and gear in way that just can’t happen with a backpack full of traditional equipment.

The last few years have been a reflection of my newfound passion. I took on a leadership role at NOLS and helped create their Lightweight Backpacking program. I’ve done a bunch at BPL, writing and illustrating articles, as well as teaching some of the Wilderness Trekking Courses out of Bozeman. And last summer I even wrote a book on the subject!

The upcoming book is meant to be a more comprehensive follow-up to Don Ladigin’s excellent LIGHTEN UP!

An Interview with Mike Clelland! - 2
Co-teachers Sam Haraldson and Mike Clelland! Yes, Sam is smiling.

A: Tell us more about the book - how did you come up with the idea?

M: Curiously, the book came about as a direct result of the dire economic events in 2008. In the aftermath, I went through the whole year of 2009 without any illustration work. That’s never happened before, and it was rough. It took me a while to realize that nobody was offering me any work, so I might as well invent my own.

Over the years, I’ve worked on a handful of instructional books as illustrator (each with LOTS of cartoons), and I wasn’t intimidated by stepping into a big job. So I figured I would just write a book rather than wait for the phone to ring.

I’ve worked as illustrator on a series of successful books with Allen O’Bannon. My favorite is titled ALLEN & MIKE’S REALLY COOL TELEMARK TIPS. This was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved with, and readers really seemed to respond to the simple format. The subject matter was presented as a simple series of tips, each one describing (in words and cartoons) some of the subtle skills required to master the elegant telemark turn.

I figured that the skills and techniques required for advanced ultralight backpacking could be listed in a very similar format, just a series of simple tips, each one numbered for ease of use. This makes it easy for the reader to jump from tip to tip, especially if they are looking for specific info.

One thing that I really strive for in the series of instructional books I've worked on is to make sure the book is un-intimidating. I really feel that it’s important for any potential reader to hold the book in their hands for the very first time and NOT be daunted by the material. When they initially browse through the pages, I want ‘em to think, “Hey, this looks fun!”

An Interview with Mike Clelland! - 3

I wrote and drew pretty much the whole thing in just two months, July and August of 2010. I became a sort of hermit with a deadline, and I chained myself to my desk to get it all done on time. That might sound dire, but it was an exciting flurry of creative output. It ended up being a really fun job.

I was very cautious not to overlap too much with the content of the other books out there that cover some of the same skills and techniques. I was inspired by Don Ladigin, Ryan Jordan, and Ray Jardine, but I didn’t want to repeat what they had already shared.

I’m a quirky guy, sure enough, and that ends up in my writing and in my illustrations. Most of the little tips in the book are a reflection of my own idiosyncratic point of view. I worked hard to keep my own voice in the text - the last thing I wanted was something dry and monotone!

A: I think one of the thing readers really appreciate about you is your tone! Since you've gotten this book under your belt and off your desk, do you have any exciting adventures planned for the summer, or will you simply be perfecting your one-night-at-a-time trips?

M: I really enjoy the quick little one-night-at-a-time trips, especially with the Tetons just a few minutes out my door. That is such an easy way to get out into the mountains and play with some cool gear. Plus, I get to sleep outside under the stars.

The short over-nighters are a great way to fine-tune my systems. But the real test is to put everything I’ve learned on these short little trips into something a bit more bold. This summer, I wanna do a ten-day trip with an ultralight set-up. I’ve been looking at maps, and I’ll probably try to link up a bunch of trails through the Tetons and Yellowstone, and maybe the Gallatins too. While I was working on the book, I was trying to make sure each of the tips was something that the reader could really use, nothing hypothetical, I was dedicated to real information.

Early on in the book, I describe a “Model Trip,” and I use it as the example outing, a sort of template for all the tips in the book. I feel it’s important that I actually DO this Model Trip myself. It will be set-up as a solo outing, ten days long, ambitious, and in three-season temps.

But, most importantly, it’s an ultralight experience, meaning the base weight is below ten pounds. Ten days is a nice length because you can easily carry ten days' of food. And it’s also nice because the math is easy: if you do a one-night trip, all the numbers are the same except for the consumables, and you can just move the decimal point over a little bit to the left.

The cover of the book features a cartoon of a guy (who looks suspiciously like me) and there is a call-out box with an arrow pointing to his very cute little backpack. The box reads: “food and gear for 10 DAYS under 25 pounds!” And that’s my goal for the summer.

An Interview with Mike Clelland! - 4
Me and my baby, hot off the presses.

Now, I just saw a presentation given by Andrew Skurka where he tells the story of his Alaska-Yukon Expedition: 4,680 miles and 176 days of solo-trekking, skiing, and packrafting through some of the most remote terrain on the planet.

That puts a humble little ten-day trip into a sort of stilted perspective.

All that said, I feel like I have a lot of experience camping and teaching with a lightweight backpack, mostly in a team with NOLS and BPL’s Wilderness Trekking School. On those trips we’ve been out for as long as two weeks at a time.

A: Before I let you go, is there anything else you think our readers need to know about you, your new book, lightweight backpacking, or coffee?

M: About the book, there was a genesis to the project that kind of had a life of its own; it took me in a direction I didn’t expect. My initial idea as I began writing was that it would be a string of technical tips, you know, cool little things to do and make. Now rest assured, that there is plenty of that stuff in there, but as things took shape, a more philosophical tone began to emerge, and it eventually sort of took over.

I realized that the most important aspect of ultralight backpacking comes from a mind-set and not from cool gear. The book is a lot more introspective than I would have ever guessed from the outset. For me at least, there is a joy to liberating yourself not only from ounces, but from old ways of thought. I worked hard to encourage the reader to take on the challenge of looking at his or her own mind-set.

My experiences with a very light backpack has made me much more introspective, and this has greatly improved the way I walk in the woods. And this same newfound ease-of-travel has enriched the way I relate to nature.

And about coffee. One of the skills I’ve perfected is stopping in a beautiful spot, sitting down and brewing up a small cup of afternoon coffee. I keep my cook gear ready to go in a dedicated stuff sack, and I can pull out out and light the stove within seconds of pulling the pack off. This is easy and rewarding - and greatly appreciated by my hiking partners.

Editor's note: We're as excited about Mike's new venture as he is, and Backpacking Light has partnered with him to offer a weekly rotation of tips and illustrations from his book. Mike Clelland!'s Tip of the Week begins soon, when his book, Ultralight Backpackin' Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping , hits the Gear Shop. Stay tuned!


"Interview with Mike Clelland!," by Addie Bedford. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-04-15 16:00:00-06.


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Interview with Mike Clelland!
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Jason G
(JasonG) - F

Locale: iceberg lake
mike, on 04/19/2011 12:29:26 MDT Print View

So mike, did i read that right? You haven't been on a trip longer than a couple nights with an ultralight setup?

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/19/2011 12:54:49 MDT Print View

You read wrong.

He specifically details out a 10 day trip.

Tom J. Hart
(harttj) - MLife
Mike's Book on 04/19/2011 19:05:52 MDT Print View

I tried to buy it via my Kindle app. No go. Is that because it will not be released until May or that it will not be available on the Kindle. Other books Mike has done are on the Kindle. Just wondering.

Konrad .
(Konrad1013) - MLife
excited! on 04/19/2011 22:53:30 MDT Print View

Mike, the books you've worked on have long been my favorite backcountry guides. Something about those boing marks! That and your pictures remind me of my art/illustration-loving childhood. Attention everyone-- If you can't wait for BPL, head on over to amazon! It's there and ready to ship...woohoo !!!!!! """"""""""""""""""" '"""""""""""""""" !!

Edited by Konrad1013 on 04/19/2011 22:54:29 MDT.

Jason G
(JasonG) - F

Locale: iceberg lake
david.. on 04/20/2011 00:24:20 MDT Print View

"You read wrong.

He specifically details out a 10 day trip."

"The short over-nighters are a great way to fine-tune my systems. But the real test is to put everything I’ve learned on these short little trips into something a bit more bold. This summer, I wanna do a ten-day trip with an ultralight set-up."

From the wording if that you could understand my question, David?

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/20/2011 08:44:55 MDT Print View

Ah, I see.

Hello Mike? Where are you? Need some clarification.


Locale: Pacific Northwet
Re: excited! on 04/20/2011 08:52:58 MDT Print View

My Clelland book is supposed to arrive today from Amazon.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/20/2011 10:15:45 MDT Print View

Backpacking Light's shipment of these books is in and they are on sale in our Gear Shop. I started reading (and more importantly, looking at the pictures) my copy of it last night and I can honestly say it is a valuable book even for someone like me who considers himself a pretty seasoned UL backpacker.

I've had the pleasure of leading educational courses in the backcountry with Mike and I can say that I've learned a LOT from Mike. He is a fountainhead of information who walks a line balanced perfectly between nerdy-scientist and goofy-artist. I am humbled to have been mentioned in Mike's acknowledgements at the book's beginning and can safely say I approve of the words and illustrations between the front and back cover of this book.

Ultralight Backpackin' Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping

Clelland - UL Tips

Edited by sharalds on 04/20/2011 13:55:59 MDT.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/20/2011 12:54:54 MDT Print View

There is definitely something wrong with the cover. Mike doesn't use trekking poles!

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/20/2011 13:55:17 MDT Print View

Except that's not Mike on the cover ; )

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
thanks! on 04/20/2011 14:14:37 MDT Print View

1) No, I don't use trekking poles, but when I drew the sketch for the cover, I did it at first without trekking poles, and it felt a little empty. i added the trekking pose simply because I thought it helped the image a little.

And it sorta looks like me, and maybe all my cartoons sorta look like me (sorta).

2) I've done a few UL trips for up to 14 days (13 nights) when I've worked for NOLS. My base weight was at around 10 even, and we had a load of food delivered at the half-way point, so approx. a 6 or 7 day ration period back to back.

I've done a few week long UL trips while NOT in a teaching role. But, I've never actually done a 10-day trip with a UL pack.

I've done PLENTY of longer format trips (more than 10 days) with huge loads (skiing, mountaineering, traditional, etc).

My plan for the summer is to make sure I do a 10-day trip with a pack weight under 25 pounds (excluding water). I don't foresee any problems, I just wanna make sure I do it so I can properly promote the book.

3) Sam is awesome!

Edited by mikeclelland on 04/20/2011 14:15:36 MDT.

francis siracusa
(fsiracusa) - MLife

Locale: Northeast
153 Tips on 04/20/2011 15:12:58 MDT Print View

Clelland! & SamH as instructors on a 3 day BPL course in Montana two years ago was my intro to lightweight trecking. Very dense learning experience and enjoyable as well. Mike and Sam challenged nearly every item in the pack. Mike's book reads just as he instructs on the trail. Both left brain and right brain product here!!!

Well done!

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/20/2011 17:13:54 MDT Print View

>Except that's not Mike on the cover ; )

Kinda looks like Doug Johnson.

John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: Re: Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/22/2011 07:38:48 MDT Print View


Mike's shave saved

0.000160 grams

in weight.

We have to keep the metric crowd happy.

Klic tock, klic tock, klic tock, I'm anxiously awaiting delivery of my copy.;-)

Party On,


Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/22/2011 11:20:33 MDT Print View

> Mike's book reads just as he instructs on the trail. Both left brain and right brain product here!!!

I'm about 1/2 through Mike's book now and his superb verbal teaching skills translate wonderfully to the pages of this book. Frank hits it on the nose with his remark about right and left brain points of view. It's one of Clelland's qualities - the ability to provide the scientists with an answer about a specific weight in grams, calories, et al just as well as he can provide the lovers with a response about beauty, elegance, and groovy vibes.

Frank overlooking Thompson Lake, Absaroka Mountain Range, SW Montana, September 2009.

Edited by sharalds on 04/22/2011 11:21:40 MDT.

John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: Ultralight Backpackin' Tips on 04/25/2011 18:03:09 MDT Print View

My copy just showed up in my mailbox a day early. I'm off to enjoy a good read and a good laugh and I may just learn something before I'm done. ;-)

Party On,


Karple T

Locale: Mid-Alantic
Ultralight Book on 04/29/2011 12:34:28 MDT Print View

Hey Mike -

Congrats on your book!
I love your illustrations and writing style.


Edited by ctracyverizon on 06/07/2011 09:02:33 MDT.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Interview with Mike Clelland! on 04/29/2011 12:36:58 MDT Print View

I finished reading this a couple days ago and am planning to review it on my blog next week. It's a superb combination of humor, intelligence, and grooviness.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Thanks Sam! on 05/03/2011 13:37:30 MDT Print View

Huge thanks Sam!

Just so y'know - This book was fun to do. I worked hard to keep it as sparse as possible, I wanted it short and simple. I went thru the text and compulsively used my word processor to subtract anything that felt extraneous. I kept anything childish or cute.


And - I created a companion blog:
> > > > > >

Edited by sharalds on 05/03/2011 13:51:55 MDT.