Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter

Ultralight Tip of the Week

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

Print Jump to Reader Comments

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.


Reader Comments

You must login to post comments.

New Visitors: Create a new account
Remember my login info.

Ultralight Tip of the Week
Display Avatars
Sort By:
John Whynot

Locale: Southeast Texas
The cloud on 06/19/2011 18:59:31 MDT Print View

I've been using the pack liner technique for several years now, but still kept my shelter in a stuff sack (oversize). A quick test at home this weekend showed me that packing my shelter loose will offer much more flexibility in packing.

Bought the Kindle version of the book -- it's great. It challenges you to think about your choices...

Curtis Blair
(curt1007) - F
Cloud packing on 06/19/2011 19:08:39 MDT Print View

I like this idea, I am going on a short trip next weekend am will do this. The pad and the sleeping bag inside instead of in my compressed roll outside.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Pack Sleeping Mat Frame on 06/20/2011 09:24:02 MDT Print View

When I use an inflatable torso pad what I do is fold it length-wise in half, then line the inside of the pack so that the pad forms a "U" shape from the back down to the bottom of the pack and back up the front. I make sure to leave the inflation valve accessible. Then I pack the pack as usual. When everything is inside I blow into the valve to inflate the pad as much as possible. It tightens the pack up and creates quite a stiff frame, plus provides a soft padding against the back.

Mike, just got your book. Looking forward to reading it on my iPad!

Edited by butuki on 06/20/2011 09:24:35 MDT.

John Coyle

Locale: NorCal
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/20/2011 11:25:05 MDT Print View

I have two of Mike's previous books, "Alan and Mikes Really Cool Backpacking Book," and "Lighten Up," and I must say that they are my two favorite backpacking technique books. Simple, funny and to the point. I read both of them cover to cover. Now I just skim through them and look at the drawings to refresh my memory.

I don't always agree with everything, for example the cloud method of packing a sleeping bag didn't work for me, but I haven't found anything better as a guide for ultralight backpacking. You really can't go wrong with any of Mike's books.

Noel Tavan
(akatsuki_the_devil) - MLife
can't wait on 06/20/2011 13:59:41 MDT Print View

Should receive my copy of your book in Wednesday! Can't wait for it!

Michael Reagan
(MichaelReagan) - F

Locale: Southern California
A worthy investment on 06/21/2011 13:48:01 MDT Print View

I just bought Mike Clelland's latest book (the Kindle version for my iPad) after variously enjoying/learning from/disagreeing with/fully agreeing with/being entertained by so many of his posts and articles here. I must say that I find this book to be an absolute gem that's hard to put down. Now I can't wait to get my hands on his two previous books. Thanks for putting together a thoroughly enjoyable read!


Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
Don't Forget on 06/21/2011 20:05:14 MDT Print View

Don't forget about Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book. One of my personal favorites!

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Great tip about sleeping under the stars, but not in the ADK's! on 06/22/2011 08:48:03 MDT Print View

Mike, I have no doubt that sleeping under the stars is great. Many times I have set up the tarp and simply laid down to take a nap only to wake up at midnight to hang the bear bag and dig my bag out. Many nights we get a heavy fog or light rain in the mountans of the north east. Usually about 50/50 I would say. My last trip (8 nights) was typical...rain some part of every day. Well, it IS spring...

I misread a storm (actually 3 lightning storms and 1 rain storm) one night and set up the tarp a bit off center. The wind shifted and dampened the bag and shoes. But yes, never sleep in wet cloths. My sleeping cloths are *not* pj's. They are my insulation layer if things get really bad. One extra pair of wool socks, one mid weight smartwool shirt, one mid weight long john pants. If I do not need these for the morning, they get packed with the sleeping bag. These are *always* as dry as is possible. My pants, shirt, and rain jacket may be soaked, but, I will be sleeping comfortably. If needed, I can wear these for a while...they dry farly quickly. After several days of rain, they can get quite damp, but still do the job.

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Spelling Police! on 06/22/2011 09:37:41 MDT Print View

Third paragraph of Tip #95"
" the potential for FOWL weather "

fowl = birds, particularly chickens and other domestic birds raised for food

foul = nasty, gross; in relation to weather, stormy, rainy, etc.

Though I'll give you that rainy weather while hiking is for the birds, and if you've ever lived near a chicken or turkey farm, you'd have a great argument for claiming that fowl are indeed foul!!!!

p.s. Great book! I have both a hard copy, and a copy on my Kindle!

*Note from Addie: this has been fixed. No harm, no... uh... fowl. :)

Edited by addiebedford on 06/22/2011 12:50:34 MDT.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Astrobivying on 06/22/2011 10:14:25 MDT Print View

Astrobivying looks mighty nice and easy to emplace, though tempting to bring a star chart and iPod. A bivy w/a taller entrance, yet lighter than the OR advanced bivy to avoid the stuffiness when sealed up would be nice.

Edited by hknewman on 06/22/2011 19:30:08 MDT.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Astrobivying on 06/22/2011 11:24:18 MDT Print View

I had a GoLite Utopia tent that was great for stargazing as the door was like a Gothic arch and I could open it to see a lot of night sky. I've seen meteorite showers and satellites. It didn't provide bug protection while open and that door let in rain while getting in and out in a shower, but it could be zipped up in a second if it started raining.

I've seen tunnel tent designs that allowed unzipping/rolling back the fly for a star gazing view.

Chad Miller

Locale: Duluth, Minnesota
Sleeping bag crunches on 06/22/2011 15:31:00 MDT Print View

Doing crunches to keep warm in your sleeping bag only works if you're just slightly chilled. I speak from experience that if you wake up shivering in the middle of the night doing a few minutes of crunches 'aint gona' do diddly to warm up / keep you warm until morning.

As usual your results will vary. ;)

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: Don't Forget on 06/23/2011 10:16:18 MDT Print View

>> Don't forget about Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book. One of my personal favorites!

Yeah...I didn't make that connection until a few days ago, and I have a couple Allen and Mike books. And I've been hanging in the forums for months now. Feeling a bit sheepish.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/23/2011 12:38:14 MDT Print View

Mike's tips for finding a warmer campsite are the same tips used to avoid condensation in your shelter! They are also useful to find a "stealth" campsite or just one that is more LNT.

Unfortunately, in those areas where bark beetles have decimated nearly all of the trees, a meadow site is often the only safe place to be. It should be the last resort, though.

Edited by hikinggranny on 06/23/2011 13:58:17 MDT.

Anne Speck
(Gneissisnice) - F
Cartoons on 06/23/2011 15:55:33 MDT Print View

Mike -- I love your cartoons! I got the Kindle version of your book because I'm trying to lighten up in the rest of my life and the zoom function does not work for inline graphics. I'm sure Amazon is getting flack for this and is promising authors they're working on something... but is there any way you could give readers a work-around until Amazon is done? Maybe ask for some identifier in the book to unlock a pdf on your site?

Thanks for your time.

Darren Bagnall

Locale: El Portal, CA
Tip #99 on 06/24/2011 11:13:47 MDT Print View

Hello - Greats Tips.

Regarding tip #99 'wearing all your clothes to bed'. How do you get around your hiking clothes being wet from sweat or rain? I usually carry "pajamas" (light base-layer top/bottoms, hat, gloves, and extra dry socks) because my hiking clothes are always too wet from sweat when I go to bed. Also they are very dirty and wearing dirty clothes in my sleeping bag will dirty the bag (which I believe will eventually reduce its ability to keep me warm). One thing to note is I generally hike 'thru-hiking style' (long miles, hike all day and jump into bed). I would love to reduce my weight by leaving the pajamas at home but I am not convinced thats a good idea (for me). Any additional insights or ideas?

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/24/2011 11:32:28 MDT Print View

Would you take a base layer anyway? I do! Ditto the hat and socks. I therefore don't consider my base layer (which I wear to bed at night) as extra clothes or "pajamas" but as an additional layer for cold nights and mornings. On a frosty morning, I'll put on my hiking clothes (plus all of the rest of my gear) over the base layer and not remove the base layer until I am ready to start hiking for the day. It has to be really cold (like well below freezing) for me to hike in my base layer, but I definitely need it around camp as well as in the sleeping bag. Like you, I don't want to crawl into my sleeping bag with wet or grubby clothes. Even if I did, though, I'd add the base layer!

Edited by hikinggranny on 06/24/2011 11:33:48 MDT.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Tip #99 on 06/24/2011 11:59:37 MDT Print View

I would draw the line at wearing rain gear and I wouldn't wear muddy/dirty pants unless it was really cold. Soft shell pants are great in that case.

I do work silkweight long johns into my shoulder season clothing list and I use a Power Stretch hoodie or vest for mid-layer insulation, which all make excellent sleep clothing. The Power Stretch hoodie plus my windshirt is equal to something like a Thermawrap jacket, although it is a bit heavier. I do like the versatility and I get a hood (read fleece beanie) and some hand coverage in the bargain. I've always railed at carrying something like a Thermawrap plus a windshirt--- too many shell layers. The Power Stretch provides highly breathable insulation and it works well in wet conditions. Patagonia Cap4 or R1 would do the same trick. They are excellent in conjunction with a rain shell too. Silkweight long johns and rain pants are the only way to fly in all-day cold rain.

You can certainly sleep in insulation layers like light synthetic or down jackets, along with something like a bottom base layer and wind pants. It makes more sense to me to have the option of the insulating clothing and count on that as part of the lower temperature for my sleep system. You can't wear most sleeping bags on the trail or around camp (there are some quilts that can be worn in camp).

If you carry a 20F bag for actual 20F sleep plus insulating clothing for the same temps, you have needless duplication and weight--- the combined system could go to much lower temps. You could dial back to a 32F bag and wear your insulation, saving a pound or more. You end up with more trapped air layers and you don't feel the air leaks in your bag with the extra sleep layers on.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
baggies on 06/24/2011 12:18:48 MDT Print View

the problem with using a lighter bag is how you prepare for a "20F" night ...

is that 20F the lowest expected temp? ... or just the "average" ...

if its the average you may well end up cold if the temps dip ... especially at the end of the trip when yr bag is losing loft

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/24/2011 12:26:21 MDT Print View

Those of us who sleep really cold add extra clothing at 25-30*F in that 20*F bag! And what if it does go down to 10*F? I've had that happen several times, and I want to be prepared!

Edited by hikinggranny on 06/24/2011 12:28:10 MDT.