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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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Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Re: Maybe bordering on obsession. on 07/03/2011 22:18:36 MDT Print View

That's me. I fuss a lot with the gear at home. Once I get out on the trail, I'm too busy enjoying myself and my surroundings. I just use the gear and don't worry about it, unless it's something serious like a leak in the tent (happened once; I missed a tiny spot when seam-sealing). Then when I get home I reflect on what worked and what didn't and think about improvements.

Mike In Socal
(rcmike) - MLife

Locale: California
TIP # 32: Being present on the trail on 07/04/2011 11:17:27 MDT Print View

I like this one and I think it should extend to everything we do. Just be present. Don't be distracted. Don't view the trail from entirely behind a camera. When visiting with a friend, put your phone away.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
tutorial videos on 07/05/2011 12:24:49 MDT Print View

Here's what I've been doing this summer. These short videos match the content of the book.

Lotsa tutorial videos.

Thomas Trebisky

Locale: Southern Arizona
Great tip, great book on 07/06/2011 13:20:02 MDT Print View

I have been enjoying these tips online so much, I finally got busy and bought the book.
A great book, I can't say enough good things about it.

This particular tip "be here now" as I like to call it, is a great one.
I'm sure I'm not alone in that I can "live in my head" way too much.
It is a fine thing to turn all that off and fully tune in to what is around
you at a given moment. I find myself doing this more and more and this "tip"
just echos this discovery. It is great to do this many times each day!

The book is really a special work. Mike has a unique way about him that makes
the book great fun, and full of all kinds of valuable information.
My hat is off to Mike - a great work at many levels.

F. Thomas Matica
(ftm1776) - F

Locale: Vancouver, WA
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 07/06/2011 13:29:32 MDT Print View

Yes, Mike, thinking can get in the way. Naming that flower can put an end to really knowing it. The flower is our teacher and silence is our connection with it.

Backcountry Buddhism at its finest.

John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: Ultralight Tip # 116 "Butt Scuff" on 07/06/2011 15:28:48 MDT Print View


What about LNT? ;-)

Party On,


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Spelling/word usage police on 07/06/2011 17:04:17 MDT Print View

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

A thousand monkeys will do, if you've got the time. ;)

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: flower on 07/06/2011 17:06:57 MDT Print View

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

If it moves and it's back is to the sun....... ;)

Everett Vinzant
(wn7ant) - MLife

Locale: CDT
Tossing the old pack around... on 07/08/2011 06:13:17 MDT Print View

Okay, I'm sure there's a place for the idea of taking off a hat, and shirt, and throwing it in a pack while hiking. Wouldn't it be a good time to stop and enjoy your surroundings (tip from a previous week)? I think it's a neat tip, and could move a UL'er from Nerd to cool (okay, maybe it would take more than one cool move) but I can't think of a time I'd NEED to not stop to take off a shirt and stuff it in a backpack.

Warning, what follows is potentially thread jacking, proceed at your own risk:

Mike, the book is outstanding. I'm going to admit something. You have tips about natural toilet paper. Towards the beginning to the tip you talk about being disappointed with UL'ers that go and use TP. When I first read this I got indignant. Who are you to say... Long story short. You got me. I realized it's a book of ideas (excellent ones) not a rule book. I'll stick with TP (maybe only for now, who knows). Point being, thank you for expanding my mental tool belt so that I can make do in the woods. The day may come that I try it without TP.

Until then you'll just have to be happy knowing my BPW dropped from 47lbs (all that excellent military training), to just over 8 (retraining). My weight dropped from over 200 to under 180. Your books got me back on the trail, living. I look forward to even one night out under the stars. It's the best sleep I get.

Before anyone goes on about, "not a real UL'er if you use TP..", I'd like to point something out. When I go out, I don't bring the following: anything that requires electricity to operate (GPS, kindle, cell phone, radio, etc). In order to do it right to me, I have to leave the digital world behind. I have to. No watch. I militantly do not want to know what time it is or even what day it is.

I do bring a camera (Rollei B35). It is a fully mechanical film camera. Yes, film. I may bring a book. Without a flash light I read by the glow of light sticks, firelight, or during the day. This won't work for some/everyone, but it works for me.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
To me the issue is education, thus my zeal. on 07/08/2011 07:51:40 MDT Print View

Reply to Everett:

Just so you know, you are not the first person to get indignant about my views on toilet paper in the backcountry. This topic, more than anything else, provokes an emotional response. So don't worry about hurting my feelings.

Here's where I'm coning from, I've worked for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) for 17 years. I have logged over 3 entire years of time in mountains with students. During that time, I have NEVER carried toilet paper into the mountains, and neither have my students. And this is the standard practice at the school. And - Let me add - that absolutely nobody has ever complained, just the opposite. Once you learn how to perform this very simple duty - the students are proud and seem to enjoy their new found expertise (as they should).

NOLS is an institution that teaches skills at a very advanced level, and I'm super proud of my work there. And lemme add that the instructors teach a natural toilet paper class on the first day, the students have no problems, and it's not an issue for the remainder of their 30-day expedition. The outcome is that there is a rather large population of folks that are not carrying toilet paper, and then leaving it behind as litter in the mountains. And I had a small hand in that.

From my direct experience of over two decades of zero toilet paper - and teaching to students and peers - This isn't even an issue for me. It's something so simple that I don't worry about it. And I'm quite certain that every NOLS grad feels the same.

The reason I might sound so preachy is that each summer deal with a LOT of other peoples used toilet paper. This means I pick it up, and find a way to dispose of it properly. To me the issue is education, thus my zeal.

I'll also add that I feel quite alone in the lightweight camping community, because TP is always part of their gear list. (and often, soap is missing from that same list). I'm trying to change that, at least a little bit.

Here's a link to an article I wrote in 2006:

Note the long list of emotional reactions this article generated!

Edited by mikeclelland on 07/08/2011 08:08:28 MDT.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Changing your shirt on 07/08/2011 08:02:46 MDT Print View

Re: Changing your shirt

Interesting, but I don't see the weight advantage :) I was reminded of watching a girlfriend changing her swim suit top under her tee shirt.

My question is WHY? Are we so busy we can't stop and take a shirt off? If you can't stop, change your shirt, have a sip, smell the flowers, take a stretch, you might as well stay home. I would probably trip and go head over heels anyway :)

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
(No watch, GPS, kindle, cell phone, radio, etc) on 07/08/2011 08:04:22 MDT Print View

Reply to Everett:

You wrote:
"I don't bring the following: anything that requires electricity to operate (GPS, kindle, cell phone, radio, etc). In order to do it right to me, I have to leave the digital world behind. I have to. No watch. I militantly do not want to know what time it is or even what day it is."

Mike replies:
Right-On! I feel very strongly about this too! (alas, I do bring a headlamp, but often in the summer it never gets used). I refer to this aspect of the wilderness experience as a "media" fast. It's the reason I go into the mountains. I also nix my wallet, money, credit cards and car keys. It's a philosophical ritual that I truly love. I do everything I can to separate myself from THIS world, so I can more fully immerse myself into THAT world.

Also - The reason for the instructional cartoon with the hiker NOT stopping when removing his wind-shirt is because it's FUN! Also, with a UL pack-weight, there is really no issue at all when it comes to walking and changing layers at the same time. It's a benefit of the super light pack.

Will Webster
TP on 07/08/2011 08:45:54 MDT Print View

I definitely agree with Mike about TP litter; it's an unsanitary eyesore. I've tried using snow (cold) and leaves (uncomfortable) to reduce TP usage. I'm willing to continue experimenting. I backpack with my wife, who has in many ways drunk the UL koolaid but draws the line at this, so we will probably always bring TP into the woods with us. It doesn't have to be a choice between leaving it at home or leaving it on the trail, though: We carry the same amount of TP out (double bagged) that we brought in if there isn't a proper privy.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 07/08/2011 09:05:22 MDT Print View

Ah heck - why wear a shirt? Save some weight and the hassle.


Rick Cheehy
(kilgoretrout2317) - F

Locale: Virginia
N0 TP for you, one week! on 07/08/2011 10:33:11 MDT Print View

My wife and I have both converted to natures own TP, on the advice of Mike. We dig it. Packing out TP sucks and leaving it is just not an option. Besides wet moss is quite soothing, and it exfoliates!

a b
TP or not TP.. whether it is nobler in the heart to wipe.. ugh! on 07/08/2011 10:55:29 MDT Print View

The composting privies on the A.T. were a revelation to me as a western hiker. For years I have hiked in the Sierra and seen the ridiculous pollution of used TP in places like Rancheria Falls in Northern Yosemite.
It is very un-Edward Abbey of me, but sometimes i wish there were Privies in some of the more popular locations of the Sierra.
One slightly humorous/slightly sad and totally sick story for you: I was summiting Mt Whitney on my PCT thru hike. On the way through Crabtree meadows I noticed a bear locker full of wag bags. Now Crabtree has a privy so it struck me as odd why there would be these wag bags. Anyhow when i passed the ranger station I noticed a pile of wag bags, presumably "loaded", laying all over the front porch!
I don't know it the dry Sierra climate would support the composting privy idea or even if folks would use them.
Anyhow, way back when i was a bury and burn TP user I met Kristin, a fellow hiker in Yosemite. She infomed me that i would not be going to Laurel lake with my uncle but rather going to lake Vernon with here.. naturally I obeyed. While hiking with Kristin the TP subject came up and she produced a squeeze bottle and stated: "This is my solution to pollution." Likewise my Friend Sage also uses the wash the bum teqnique rather than TP saying: "If you got "it" on your hand would you rather merely wipe it off or wash it off?"
Well obviously women are smarter than us.
So I am now a bum washer. The trick is to always carry hand sanitizer and be sure to bring enough water with you away from any water sources to "do the job".
Not carrying TP means i have eliminated 100% of it's weight, 100% of it's pollution, 100% of the fire danger of burning it, and 100% of the worry of it getting wet in my pack.
But all that being said the moral superiority i should feel is quelled by the humbling fact that I am wiping my bum with my hand.

Thanks Mike! I will check out that article. I would have mentioned that sphagum moss makes excellant TP but that would surely bring the wrath of god on top of me.

Edited by Ice-axe on 07/08/2011 11:35:37 MDT.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
...more on 07/08/2011 11:12:25 MDT Print View


Well said.

But, please know, I don't advocate wiping with one's hand. Instead I advocate using any number of wonderful and easy to find natural alternatives.

That said, I do teach the skill of washing ones butt in the backcountry, and I don't feel the need to do it daily, but every once in a while it's nice. Read the article, I include both the natural TP alternative and the butt-washing skills (and both are in the book too).
Here's a link to an article I wrote in 2006:

AND - Your friend Kristen carries a squeeze bottle, correct? This is known lovingly as the Backountry Bidet. Some folks advocate that system, and more power to 'em. But, it involves bringing one extra piece of gear. Or, if you use your water bottle, BE CAREFUL!!!

ALSO - I would advocate to you adding a tiny bit of soap to your arsenal of tools. I've worked with some medical researchers and they all say that soap is preferable to hand sanitizer as a meathod of keeping your hands clean. Also, it is my understanding that to use hand sanitizer properly, you need a lot of it (A dab roughly the size of a peanut m&m). If you take only one hand cleaner, I would strongly advocate taking only soap over only hand sanitizer.

Jason G
(JasonG) - F

Locale: iceberg lake
? on 07/08/2011 11:48:45 MDT Print View

i second that dale.. not sure how this pertains to UL...

"Re: Changing your shirt

Interesting, but I don't see the weight advantage :) I was reminded of watching a girlfriend changing her swim suit top under her tee shirt.

My question is WHY? Are we so busy we can't stop and take a shirt off? If you can't stop, change your shirt, have a sip, smell the flowers, take a stretch, you might as well stay home. I would probably trip and go head over heels anyway :)"

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
the shirt changing cartoon on 07/08/2011 11:54:38 MDT Print View

Reply about the shirt changing cartoon:
As I said before, if the pack is truly light, there is no reason to set it down, and (most importantly) it's FUN!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week-shirt changing on 07/08/2011 13:05:51 MDT Print View

I agree with Dale and others--what in the world is so important that we can't take a 1-2 minute break to stop and remove a wrap? For those of us who use trekking poles, Mike's contortions wouldn't work anyway. I'd undoubtedly end up taking a fall if I tried that!

What I generally do instead is to strip down to shirtsleeves just before heading out on the trail in the morning. Yes, I get chilly and may even start shivering, but in 5 minutes of hiking I'm warmed up! In the meantime, I'm wide awake!

I go out to the wilderness to get away from horrid concepts like efficiency and increased productivity with their accompanying ulcers, high blood pressure and sleepless nights! Actually, I retired 11 years ago to get away from such things and haven't missed them at all!

Edited by hikinggranny on 07/08/2011 15:03:24 MDT.