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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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Travis Naibert
(outwest) - F
An added aquamira note on repackaging on 06/06/2011 17:02:49 MDT Print View

Great advice Mike C!

I would like to point out two points to those who have never repackaged aquamira before.
1) If you backpack a lot or are planning a thru-hike, you can buy AqMira in larger sizes, used for treating whole household water tanks. I think you get about 4 times the product for about twice the price of the normal hiker size.
2) If you repackage your aquamira drops in smaller droppers like many people do, you should get a teaspoon out and count how many drops it takes to fill the teaspoon with the original bottles and your repackaged bottles because some dropper bottles let out larger or smaller drops and you may have to adjust the directions. My dropper bottles take 8.4 drops per liter as per the directions and some recalculating. I still use 7 per liter, but it isn't really following the directions.

The tip of the week and the illustrations are quickly becoming one of my favorite BPL features.

Paul Bates
(pjbates3) - F

Locale: Southeast
Just bought my copy! on 06/08/2011 13:37:44 MDT Print View

Thanks for the great tips Mike! The cartoons are priceless.

robert mckay
(rahstin) - F

Locale: The Great Land
nap time bandana on 06/11/2011 17:03:59 MDT Print View

Yet another use for a bandana... Cover for eyes while napping!
On a recent thru hike of the Denali Highway. Funny how quickly the dreams arrive...

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: nap time tip on 06/11/2011 17:50:19 MDT Print View

Never taken a nap during a backpacking trip, but it does sound good. Rahstin's picture confirms it. I might give it a try next time.

I love you book. Every time I look through it I find a great tip. Your cartoons are perfect. Funny but very informative.

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Nap! on 06/11/2011 20:06:46 MDT Print View

I may have rested in my tent before, but never a nap while on the trail. That's a great idea. I'll have to give it a try.

Finished my book this last and enjoyed it quite a bit. Thanks Mike!

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Napping on 06/11/2011 21:21:21 MDT Print View

I love your tips, Mike, and many of them have come in very handy, but I find it really strange that people need to be tipped on taking a nap. It's the most natural thing in the world. All the animals do it. It's hard for me to believe that there are people here who've never even contemplated it.

Tim Zen
(asdzxc57) - F

Locale: MI
Re: Re: Napping on 06/11/2011 21:58:23 MDT Print View

Mike -- your best tip ever. Nothing like a nap. Even President Truman knew the value of a nap.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Re: Re: kNapping on 06/12/2011 10:41:03 MDT Print View

You know I just thought about this:

Is the tip suggesting we take a nap using our knapsack?

F. Thomas Matica
(ftm1776) - F

Locale: Vancouver, WA
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/12/2011 13:04:49 MDT Print View

Better get some baggies on those feet if you want to keep the bears away! ! ! ! !

(cuzzettj) - MLife

Locale: NorCal - South Bay
Nap... Thanks Mike on 06/13/2011 10:02:55 MDT Print View

Naps. Mike I love my trail naps. Even my kids roll their collective eyes as I does off and they toss rocks at me. I don't flinch when they hit. I just snore louder. It helps keep the bears at bay!!!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/14/2011 15:04:37 MDT Print View

I have to feed my dog (very sensitive stomach) a part of his daily ration at noon so he won't barf up his breakfast and dinner. As a result, I get to rest an hour while he digests his lunch. Even if I don't sleep, just relaxing with my shoes off leaves me as refreshed as though I had just started the day!

Michael Levine
(Trout) - F

Locale: Long Beach
clelland on 06/15/2011 12:52:46 MDT Print View

As an owner of Mike's book I have to recommend it. I used to lug 25lb base weight around with a ton of "just in case" items, I'm now down to 7.6lb. Granted this took the motivation of an upcoming JMT and some expendable income. Honestly though the book itself would have shaved a good 10-12 pounds off.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Thanks Michael! on 06/15/2011 13:21:14 MDT Print View

Right on! I really love hearing this kind of stuff - and that was my goal when I wrote the book! Huge thanks!

Mike C!

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Framesheets on 06/17/2011 05:54:59 MDT Print View

Good tip! Some packs are designed to handle a frame sheet externally to the pack. I think Gossamer Gear inovated this with a few others picking it up. Using a modified closed cell foam pad can net a good weight savingings this way. A full Nightlite pad can be cut into 10" sections, nesting the dimples, and taped together for a 50" pad/framesheet.

With a little modification, closed cell pads can be made into a box in a pack's body. A piece of duct tape will tape it back together, once you have the pieces cut to fit in your pack.
Example: 12", 7", 12", 7", 11" will give a 49" length pad. In a pack, this will give two layers of 1/2" foam back, a 1/2" piece of foam along each side and a piece across the front. This is more rigid (by a good 50%) than a simple inflatable framesheet and less weight by a couple ounces. It really holds the pack body stiff for up to two weeks of food (22lb) and your base gear (around 10lb.) Fuel makes up the 35lb maximum.

I have found that the NeoAir series do not lend themselves all that well to frame support, though. A more standard Thermorest works better, generally. None of the true inflateables really do a good jod with support(Pacific Outdoors, Inertia, X-Frame, etc.) I never tried the DAM's though.

Will Webster
Re: Framesheets on 06/17/2011 06:24:48 MDT Print View

"With a little modification, closed cell pads can be made into a box in a pack's body"

That's what I've been doing with my Z-lite. It's cut down to torso length (6 sections) and I put it in the pack like this:
/\_ _/\ then fill the channel with my gear.

My current pack is an REI Flash 50 with the framesheet removed (I know - too heavy; I'm holding out for the rest of the SOTM to be released). With the Z-lite "frame" all the weight is on my hips, but it does pull away from my back some.

Colin Parkinson

Locale: Ontario Canada
Cloud Packing on 06/17/2011 21:00:47 MDT Print View

I did the cloud packing thingy on my last back packing trip, it worked great knocked at least ten minutes of my morning packing ritual.

And best of all no fighting to get the last bit of the sleeping bag into the too small stuff sack.

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
semi-cloud? on 06/17/2011 22:17:44 MDT Print View

I do a sort of semi-cloud when packing my sleeping bag. I have a GG cuben dry bag with eVent larger than actually needed for the sleeping bag. Once closed, the eVent lets air in or out, depending on the pressure of the down trying to expand vs the pressure of other stuff on top. The bag is less confined than in a regular stuff sack, but still safe from any water entering the pack. It also conforms very nicely to the pack's shape, as it does in the cloud packing method.

James Winstead

Locale: CA
Also Semi-Cloud on 06/17/2011 22:40:48 MDT Print View

I am also of the semi-cloud variety. I loosely stuff my sleeping bag in the bottom inside my compactor bag liner. I leave the liner open at the top like a chimney/snorkel to evacuate the air as I pack on top of it. Then most everything else is piled on top within some sort of bag. Who cares if my mess kit gets wet! It's really only in a bag to keep soot/esbit gunk off everything else. Insulation layers and rain gear is loose on the very top. Then last thing I twist the snorkel around a few times and stuff it back along the side of the pack. No sweat.

And let me be +1,728 or whatever on how great this book is. So simple. It really sends the message that UL isn't some odd special technique or something that only hardcore adventure racers do. Carrying less is fun, easy, can be cheap and is really just a mentality. Bravo

nick beaudoin
(nick_beaudoin) - MLife

Locale: Palmy
ANother semi cloud on 06/18/2011 16:43:27 MDT Print View

I find the best compromise between stuff sack and cloud method is using a large cuben drybag. I can stuff quilt big or small taking as or as little room as trip dictates. It also affords me a bit of peace of mind having it in a drybag.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
reply to folks on 06/18/2011 16:53:03 MDT Print View

I agree with the comments above. No need to create a bowling ball using a "traditional" compression stuff sack. And, using an easily stuffed lager sized stuff sack is a great option.

It the book I advocate using the BIVY-SACK as a non-waterproof way to stuff the sleeping bag (in full cloud mode) in the bottom of your pack and INSIDE a white plastic trash COMPACTOR bag.

The bivy sack adds a slight bit of water protection, but the primary waterproofing is the COMPACTOR bag.

Mike C!