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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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Kathleen B

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Salt? on 06/24/2011 14:53:43 MDT Print View

Mike - I'm really enjoying your book. I even got Mr. B to look at it. His interest picked up when he saw your line about it's ok to stink. Not the tip I would have picked for him to focus on, but I'll take what I can get.

I just made the spelt breakast, spicy olive oil, polenta-couscous, and dried pesto. In the dried pesto sauce recipe 1 teaspoon of sugar is listed twice. I guessed the extra sugar should have been 1 teaspoon of salt, so that's what I did. 1 TB of pesto powder and 1 TB of spicy oil mixed up into a small bit of heaven. I put it on the couscous-polenta.

I plan to make the other recipes early next week when I get to civilization so I can buy the ingredients I don't have here in Whoville.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: under the stars on 06/24/2011 19:01:29 MDT Print View

The only thing that comes close to sleeping under the stars is Peeing under the stars

Peeing while Peering upwards at the starry night skyses,
high, high on the hill
as my stream's steam rises,
quite a thrill

Daniel Allen
(Dan_Quixote) - F

Locale: below the mountains (AK)
spelling police 2.0 on 06/26/2011 03:32:02 MDT Print View

Ensure: make darn certain something will happen
Insure: set up a contingency plan in case something adverse happens.

Sorry Mike, but the English Major in me cringes far too often when I read your otherwise excellent books/tips.

I'm still reading them though! =)

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: under the stars on 06/26/2011 07:23:34 MDT Print View

"The only thing that comes close to sleeping under the stars is Peeing under the stars"

Reminds me of the joke about the guy who walks up to a urinal and begins doing his business when he notices "look up" scrawled on the tile in front of him. He looks up along the wall and sees another scrawl - "look higher." He continues to look up the wall and sees - "higher still." Finally he looks straight up at the ceiling and reads - "quick, look down, you're peeing on your shoes!"

Aaron Benson
(AaronMB) - F

Locale: Central Valley California
Re: spelling police 2.0 on 06/26/2011 10:58:37 MDT Print View

Oh, Dan! As a fellow picky English Major I must point out--in good fun, of course--that Mike did indeed spell the word correctly. In this case, as you actually show above, it's a case of the "wrong word." ;) I can't help but smile a bit when reading students' papers and they don't realize they've done this because Microsoft's spell checker liked what it sees!

Admittedly, as a writer, I sometimes do this when I've been at it for a stretch. It happens, which is why good editing is good!

Great book, Mike. Thanks!
(If you have any say or are able to give feedback to Amazon/Kindle/Falcon, have them make sure your pictures are placed appropriately within the [Kindle's version] text in your next piece. FYI, there are quite a few pictures that seem to be misplaced by a paragraph/section, if you will, so the picture context doesn't quite fit in with the text. It's close and easily figured out but it's not something that would be acceptable in a traditional paper text, and so, IMO, should not happen in an electronic version either. This is just a nitpick and no reflection on you or your work; I appreciate your book, I'll reread it, and suggest it to others!)

Peeing under the stars is great; the early-morning field of stars is sublime. I often find myself lost in it all.

Doug, you might try a little back and forth turret action to help prevent going on your feet while getting lost in space. :)

Edited by AaronMB on 06/26/2011 11:07:00 MDT.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Spelling/word usage police on 06/26/2011 19:11:59 MDT Print View

I think spell-checking software is responsible for most of the errors like this.

We get typing in too much of a hurry and unintentionally type the wrong word, but spell-check of course doesn't pick it up because it doesn't know what word we intended to use. It has happened to me a lot.

IMHO, here's no substitute for a good human proofreader! Or preferably, several of them!

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Spelling/word usage police on 06/26/2011 19:27:58 MDT Print View

There are computer programs available which will check spelling, punctuation, and usage. You can even set the checking rules or intensity that you want applied.


Tim Zen
(asdzxc57) - F

Locale: MI
Re: Re: Spelling/word usage police on 06/26/2011 19:44:59 MDT Print View

For what it is worth, I don't care about spelling, IMHO. That being said, YMMV on spell checkers.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: under the stars on 06/26/2011 20:27:28 MDT Print View

""The only thing that comes close to sleeping under the stars is Peeing under the stars"

Some of us older folks have been known to do both at the same time. :(

Michael Reagan
(MichaelReagan) - F

Locale: Southern California
Spellcheckers on 06/26/2011 20:27:48 MDT Print View

Yep, I agree with Mary. I've caught a number of usage errors in things I've posted over the years (always after the fact, sigh).

Spelling, grammar, and junk like that is important. Otherwise we are just one hundred monkeys at one hundred keyboards. Or something like that. :o)


George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Spellcheckers on 06/28/2011 19:37:35 MDT Print View

Speillng is way ovrreated

If you can undrestnad waht the syombls maen tehn the msseage is succsseful.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week--#32 on 06/30/2011 11:49:13 MDT Print View

Mike, that was truly beautiful! That's exactly why I go out in the wilderness and will continue to go as long as I can put one foot in front of another!

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week--#32 on 06/30/2011 12:10:11 MDT Print View

That's why I don't get 25 mile days on the trail--- too busy dodging rocks and roots to enjoy the scenery. Many of us live a hectic urban lifestyle and we need to leave that at home and take the time to enjoy the awesome-ness of the outdoors.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
flower on 06/30/2011 14:10:02 MDT Print View

you can it flower ... i call it UL salad ;)

Scott Engles
Better yet, try this on 06/30/2011 17:47:26 MDT Print View

The flower technique is great. But instead of focusing on a flower, consider trying what a guy once did sitting under a tree in the forest a long time ago:

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: flower on 07/01/2011 11:09:38 MDT Print View

>> you can it flower ... i call it UL salad ;)

some call it tp

kidding, only kidding - this tip is among my favorites

i've practiced this tip not only on a flower but on an insect and even fuzzy things growing on rotting wood. it's good for the soul

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 07/01/2011 12:04:54 MDT Print View

I agree with Dale that getting out there away from the cares of everyday life and immersing oneself in the wild is far more important than mileage! That's why I hike what used to be called "banker's hours" (9-3) and generally end up doing 5-7 mile days. Of course my age has quite a bit to do with that, too! At least that's as good an excuse as any for spending more time enjoying my surroundings!

Serge Giachetti
(sgiachetti) - M

Locale: Boulder, CO
the present on 07/03/2011 04:22:02 MDT Print View

Loving post #32. Moments like that are definitely a big draw to the mountains. I try to take some time on each hike to just relax and let my imagination wonder around the landscape a bit--picturing geologic time at viewpoints etc.

People often associate moving fast with rushing, which somehow excludes it from the present. Its definitely possible to get carried away or preoccupied with mileage goals, but I find that moving fast can also be a point of connection to the present. If I can bring a loose awareness of hiking rhythm and propreaception, a greater awareness of the passing environment usually follows.

(I realize that the level of earnestness is fodder for trolls, but hey, we're not actually out there just to test gear are we? ;)

On that note: I think my gear-fectionism might be getting in the way of just plain old enjoying myself in the mountains. I just finished a section of the colorado trail where I found myself paying attention to things that I never would have thought twice about before, like if the swing weight of my trekking poles is too much, or what the perfect volume hipbelt pockets would be. Silly huh?

Not to hi-jack, but anyone else have this experience?

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Re: the present on 07/03/2011 19:24:38 MDT Print View

"I think my gear-fectionism might be getting in the way of just plain old enjoying myself in the mountains...anyone else have this experience?"

Yup, but this will likely fade. For me it has. When you first go UL, the new gear is so neat/strange/exciting/worrying etc that it can draw a lot of your attention. This will fade though as your gear closet overhaul slows and you'll get back to just enjoying nature.

Edited by dandydan on 07/03/2011 19:25:44 MDT.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Maybe bordering on obsession. on 07/03/2011 19:30:07 MDT Print View

I have that feeling *BEFORE* I head out into the mountains, and it can be sorta ridiculous at times. Maybe bordering on obsession.

But, I mellow out a LOT once I'm immersed in the wilderness.

At the same time, my mind is always ticking. I see new tricks, and realize how I want to tinker with gear and techniques. This mind-set isn't at all oppressive, it can be really nice. I try not to judge it, it's just the way my mind wants to tick along. And, I feel i do my very best 3D R&D along the trail.