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Ultralight Tip of the Week

Rotating feature with tips and illustrations from Mike Clelland!'s new book: Ultralight Backpackin' Tips

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by Mike Clelland! | 2012-01-13 12:00:00-07

(Excerpted from Ultralight Backpackin' Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping by Mike Clelland!)

The first ten tips—The Manifesto—are a proclamation of intent. Everything else in this book can be derived from these very simple ingredients.

The intended goal of this book is to provide some clever insights on how to travel efficiently in the mountains with a very light backpack. The hush-hush secret to ultralight backpacking is that it’s actually pretty easy, especially solving all the gear issues. The bigger challenge is embracing a new mind-set, and (hopefully) this book will balance these essential factors.

Focus on these initial ten points, and everything else will fall into place.

1. Get a scale.

Ultralight Tip of the Week - 1

This is rule number one, and it’s absolutely essential. Do not proceed until this is solved. There is simply no way around it; weighing your gear is a prerequisite.

If you are an aspiring ultralight camper, this is the one and only tool that is truly required to get your pack weight to plummet. A simple digital postal scale has accuracy down to a tenth of an ounce, and knowing the weight of every single item is essential.

These are cheap and easy to find; a simple 5-pound digital postal scale from any office supply store is perfect. No need to pay more than 35 bucks, and if you shop around, there are good scales for as little as $19.95.

2. Comfortable and safe are vital!

Anyone can go out into the mountains with a tiny amount of gear and suffer - it’s easy to be cold, hungry, and ill prepared. You need to be warm at night, dry in the rain, well fed, and ready to deal with safety issues. Ultralight camping should be delightful, not stressful. The challenge is to succeed with only the gear that’s absolutely needed (see Tip 28).

The first-aid kit is a good metaphor for your lightweight camping mind-set. You would be foolish to travel without one, right? But what is truly required? What can you effectively improvise? There is a blurry line between TOO heavy and TOO light. You can still go out into the backcountry with a very light pack and be comfortable and safe (see Tip 55).

3. Scrutinize everything!

This entire book could get boiled down to those two words. Do NOT simply put stuff in your pack. Look at every single item, weigh it, document it, hold it in your hand, ponder it, brood on it, and meditate over it. Only after this mindful deliberation should you decide if this item comes along. This cautious thought process happens for every single item! Do this every time you prep for an outing.

Questions to ask: Will I be fine without this? Is there a lighter option? Can this item serve more than one purpose; is it multiuse? Can I use something else and get the same results? A tent stake can hold your shelter down in the wind and also makes a pretty good trowel for digging a cat-hole, making it a true a multiuse option.

Be extremely meticulous with every decision - and every item. Weigh it, trim it down, and weigh it again. You either need it or you don’t. If you don’t need it - it doesn’t go in the pack.

4. Makeyourownstuff, and making it out of trash is always best!

It’s super fun to tinker with homemade designs and then put them to use in the backcountry. And quite often the lightest and simplest gear can be salvaged from the trash. The humble plastic water bottle is as light as it gets, and it’s essentially free (see Tip 102). And an aluminum cat food can pulled out of the garbage makes a very efficient ultralight alcohol stove (see Tip 120).

There is a myth that ultralight camping is an expensive undertaking, but it just ain’t true (see Tip 30). Sure there are a few items where it’s nice to purchase a high-quality piece of gear - titanium cookware is wonderfully light, but it comes at a high price. Would an old beer can with the top cut off serve the same purpose?

5. It’s okay to be nerdy.

I am living proof of this credo. I delight in the quirky problem solving required when wrestling with all the minutia of my pack weight. I encourage you to dig deep and fully accept your inner nerd. It’s okay to obsess about half an ounce. I encourage that attitude! I enjoy using my finely crafted do-it-yourself gear in the mountains.

I fully recognize how dorky all this can be, and I acknowledge that I fit every stereotype of the weirdo zealot. But it’s fun, and fun counts for a lot. I take great pride wearing my homemade rain skirt with a team of burly men!

Ultralight Tip of the Week - 2

6. Try something new every time you go camping.

Don’t be content with achieving a homeostasis; you should unceasingly be evolving toward a goal of greater efficiency, comfort, and lighter weight. There will always be some new and interesting thing or technique you can test. Challenge yourself with every outing. If you try something and it doesn’t work quite as well as you hoped - so what! You learned something valuable by trying. Always try something new, ALWAYS!

7. Simply take less stuff!

The easiest way to get an item’s weight down to zero is simply NOT to put it in the pack. Yes, this means leaving stuff behind. This is harder than you think. There may be an item (or a bunch of them) that you have simply always carried with you, and it might be an ingrained routine to just toss that thing in your pack. Be very self-aware whenever this happens. Question your mind-set: Are you clinging to old habits?

Go through every item you might want to bring and truly ask yourself: Will I be okay without this thing?

This answer should be either YES or NO - never maybe.

8. Know the difference between wants and needs.

You actually NEED very little. Food, water, and oxygen are obvious. So are warmth, comfort, and peace of mind. But we are all too easily swayed by our WANTS, especially me!

Some things, like the backpack, are obviously required. But what about the tent? Is that something you WANT or NEED? These are decidedly different, and it can be a challenging human exercise to attempt to separate them from each other. Can you replace the thing you WANT with a something you truly NEED? Is there an option that’s lighter, cheaper, simpler, or multiuse? Can it be nixed entirely? It should be easy to ditch the tent and replace it with a tarp, but all too often this decision can be fraught with emotion.

Ultralight Tip of the Week - 3

I have a beautiful camping knife. I love this elegantly crafted tool. I feel a very real WANT associated with my well-designed (and expensive) toy. This is a good item to truly scrutinize with ultralight eyes.

Are you hypnotized into believing you NEED a knife when all you really do is WANT a knife? (See tip 53.)

Personally I’ve found that a 0.1-ounce single-edge razor blade, void of frills and charisma, solves my need for a sharp thing in the mountains. Thus the beautiful knife stays at home, and that liberation feels good!

9. Cut stuff off your gear.

The quintessential plastic soda bottle has a lid, and under that lid is a little plastic ring. That extra piece of plastic went on in the factory, and it serves no purpose after you first open the bottle. Use a tiny pair of wire cutters (or your fingernails) and get that thing off. The paltry weight is obviously insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But to me it’s more of a mind-set. If you dedicate yourself to these (seemingly) inconsequential items, you are setting yourself up with a heightened level of overall standards. This mind-set will trickle up and influence the big stuff too.

Get a pair of scissors and trim off anything you can, and then reweigh things. The act of shaving off small extraneous stuff will really reinforce your goal. Your backpack, no matter the make or model, can always use a little trimming (see Tip 62). Get a razor blade, and go to town on it!

10. Document your gear.

One system involves a three-ring binder and a pencil, and every piece of camping gear gets weighed and noted. The other involves a computerized spreadsheet (see Tip 20).

Yes, everything gets weighed on a scale, and all these numbers get written down. This may sound totally nerdy, but this deliberate act makes it very easy to take only what’s really needed. And while you’re at it, go ahead and write the weight right on each piece of gear with a Sharpie.

The simple act of weighing your gear creates a resolve and focus that’ll force you to really think about every piece of gear. Record the totals, and make sure to add a column titled “Why” for each item. If you can’t answer “why” you need something - don’t take it!

Ultralight Tip of the Week - 4


"Ultralight Tip of the Week," by Mike Clelland!. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2012-01-13 12:00:00-07.


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Ultralight Tip of the Week
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Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/21/2011 13:27:37 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Ultralight Tip of the Week

Addie's note: Since we'll use the same URL for the tip each week, the forums will simply carry over from one week to the next. If you want to quickly see which comments are new since you last checked in, simply click "Watch this thread" to get email updates when new comments are posted.

Edited by addiebedford on 04/28/2011 12:40:35 MDT.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
re on 04/21/2011 15:04:26 MDT Print View

Those are great tips

And great cartoons

Now I'm going to have to look forward to Thursdays asw ell as Tuesdays

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/21/2011 16:03:05 MDT Print View

I also will be looking forward to Thursdays! Even though I disagree with MikeC on a few issues (we all know what one of them is), we are still coming from the same place (or at least where he probably will be 40 years down the road, hee hee).

I love the cartoons and his lighthearted approach! I also appreciate that these are free to all so we can refer beginners to them! Thanks to both MikeC and BPL!

Edited by hikinggranny on 04/21/2011 16:04:20 MDT.

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/21/2011 20:18:27 MDT Print View

I will be looking forward to these tips each week, Mike. The cartoons are fantastic and the tips are great, too! Thanks so much.

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
P.S. on 04/21/2011 20:19:20 MDT Print View

I can't wait to get my copy of your new book, Mike!

Michael Haubert
(SoCalMike) - F

Locale: So Cal
Tip 6 on 04/21/2011 22:12:21 MDT Print View

~6. Try something new every time you go camping

I dig it, Mike. I don't get out very often, but Tip 6 is something I take to heart. I think of each trip as an opportunity to experiment with a new idea--a different style of stove, a new packing method, different fire starting techniques, etc. Until you actually put that thought into a real outdoor experience, it's just a hypothesis; it still needs to be tested.

Looking forward to the book, Mike.

(Edited for brevity)

Edited by SoCalMike on 04/24/2011 22:05:07 MDT.

Curt Peterson
(curtpeterson) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/22/2011 08:34:51 MDT Print View

Ordered the book 5 minutes ago. Thanks, Mike!

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/22/2011 10:26:13 MDT Print View

Great tips and toons! I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of your book in a few days.

T.C. Cromie
(yogru) - F

Locale: Land of too much rain!
nice! on 04/22/2011 22:21:31 MDT Print View

Really enjoy reading these Mike C! I'll be looking forward to this, along with the rest, each week.

Guy Laden
(GL) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/23/2011 15:47:09 MDT Print View

This is great stuff Mike! Is the book going to be available in any electronic format?

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Plastic Bottle Ring on 04/23/2011 23:26:03 MDT Print View

Trimming that ring off of plastic bottles is genius. I wish I'd thought of this sooner.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Re: Plastic Bottle Ring on 04/24/2011 05:53:17 MDT Print View

"Trimming that ring off of plastic bottles is genius."

The thing I love about the internet is that you can go online and see others who are as crazy as you, only now you are not alone and the crazy activity no longer seems crazy.

As I packed my PCT resupplies I used little 8 oz. water bottles. Of course, like any good ultralighter I removed the label. But I thought I took it a bit too far when I hid in the basement and removed all those little rings. (Luckily, the neighbors didn't see.) But now I know I'm normal!

If I bleach all my clothes will they weigh less? Hmmmm

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
the little plastic ring on the water bottle. on 04/24/2011 10:06:40 MDT Print View


About the act of trimming off the little plastic ring on the water bottle.

Whew - I am deeply relieved that nobody is rolling their eyes - or at least addmiting it!

As I state in the text, it is less an act of weight savings (because it's so minimal) but more an act of mind-set.

Huge thanks for all the kind words!

peace from idaho,
Mike C!

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Plastic Bottle Ring on 04/24/2011 11:05:52 MDT Print View

"Trimming that ring off of plastic bottles is genius." ...
now I know I'm normal!

You've come to the wrong place if normality is what you crave!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/24/2011 16:03:43 MDT Print View

Actually, trimming the plastic ring is not so much for weight-saving, but to make it easier to rinse the neck of the bottle, especially if you're using powdered drink mix. I get rid of the rings even at home because they inevitably work up into the threads for the cap, interfering with a proper closure.

John Coyle

Locale: NorCal
Ultralight on 04/25/2011 10:04:06 MDT Print View

One of my ultralight friends suggested getting a haircut and trimming my nails before a backpack. He almost had an aneurysm when I pulled out my GobSpark firesteel to light my Caldera Cone on a recent trip. The only thing I can beat him on is clothing. Having grown up in a colder climate, (Upstate N.Y. near the Canadian border vs California), I don't seem to require as much as him. Yes sometimes I do roll my eyes at fanatic ultra-lighters. But still, I'm glad you do what you do. It makes us all a little lighter, and that's not a bad thing

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: fantastic book!!! on 04/26/2011 11:44:51 MDT Print View

Exceeded my expectations. More comprehensive than I thought it would be.

Love the humour and cartoons mixed in with the valuable and comprehensive information specific to lightweight backpacking.

Tip 117 alone is worthy of a prestigious publishing awards. : )

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Golly (i'm blushing) on 04/26/2011 17:38:38 MDT Print View

George - Do you wanna be my publicist?

Jared Dilg
(Village) - MLife

Locale: Texas
Re: Re: fantastic book!!! on 04/26/2011 20:37:00 MDT Print View

I just finished the book last night, and then thanks to this thread, watched Mike's "poo poo clinic": Now I feel the need to read it again, only with Mike's animated voice in my head :-)

It's a thoroughly entertaining and helpful book! What struck me is how well a simplified cartoon can instruct. I've read pages and studied photographs here on BPL, but it was Mike C's pictorials that continued to deliver "ah-ha!" moments.

Great job!

john chong
(johnch) - F
fantastic book! on 04/27/2011 12:49:38 MDT Print View

Just read through this last night.

It really is a book of just tips that I think all ULers can learn from. For me the last couple of tips talking about PPPPD is great. I need to go back and read it thoroughly to understand it.

The illustrations are fantastic and informative.