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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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Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: N0 TP for you, one week! on 07/08/2011 15:33:52 MDT Print View

"wet moss is quite soothing, and it exfoliates!"

Never thought about that. I have LOTS of wet moss. MILES of it! It even comes on a stick :)

CLELLAND! Do you see what you have reduced us to? [Colonel Kurtz] The horror......

Wallace Falls State Park May 2011

Edited by dwambaugh on 07/08/2011 22:00:17 MDT.

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
Great tip on 07/08/2011 15:49:32 MDT Print View

I love this tip. I do this all the time when I'm backcountry skiing and want to shed a layer without stopping. You have really mastered this tip when you can do it while riding a bike...

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Great tip on 07/08/2011 15:52:56 MDT Print View

"I love this tip. I do this all the time when I'm backcountry skiing and want to shed a layer without stopping. You have really mastered this tip when you can do it while riding a bike..."

And not wearing a helmet :) Make sure your organ donor card is filled out completely, eh?

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
right on! on 07/08/2011 15:53:08 MDT Print View

Right on! Just so y'know - I can do it on a bike, and using trekking poles.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: right on! on 07/08/2011 19:27:33 MDT Print View

rich man, poor man
beggar man, theif
dropped a yam?
wipe with a leaf



The book is fantastic and very inspiring
GET IT if you haven't yet
It will change your life

Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Daniel on a bike on 07/08/2011 20:21:00 MDT Print View

All I will add to this particular discussion is that Mr. Paladino should keep his eyes on the road while biking.

Hey Daniel: Got a cool scar yet?

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
Daniel on a bike on 07/11/2011 12:49:42 MDT Print View

Haha yes I do Addie. I also have a nice little bald spot on my chin.

Evan Parker
(ecp12) - F

Locale: Upstate NY
Praise for Mike on 07/12/2011 08:28:40 MDT Print View

I picked up your book while I was across the country and read through the entire thing while still on the plane back to the East Coast. I'm in the process of reading it through a second time and all I can say is wow. This is probably the most comprehensive and definitely the most fun UL book I've read. It's given me tons of ideas to try and I'm urging my girlfriend to read it and subscribe to the UL mindset. I just wanted to thank you for such a great book. Also, I used this current shirt tip yesterday as I was walking back from work. I felt pretty cool about it.


Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week #125 on 07/15/2011 12:17:47 MDT Print View

Thanks, Mike, for the very clearly illustrated directions on removing the child-proof thingy from the mini-Bic! I've been doing it wrong, and ruined a couple of them. The illustration is very clear even for a non-mechanical klutz like me!

Dan Montgomery
(theDanarchist) - F

Locale: Hampton Roads, VA
"Thumb-friendly" Bic on 07/16/2011 16:04:23 MDT Print View

I don't know how long these have been around, but I just got some "Thumb-Friendly" Bic lighters. They're 2.5 inches tall and weigh .6 ounces, but I can accept that weight penalty for fire-starting ease and comfort, even with gloves on.Thumb-Friendly Bic

Great book, BTW. Second only to the Golden Book of Camping and Craft Crafts in my pantheon.

Edited by theDanarchist on 07/16/2011 16:05:31 MDT.

Thomas Burns
(nerdboy52) - MLife

Locale: "Alas, poor Yogi.I knew him well."
And furthermore on 07/16/2011 18:45:15 MDT Print View

By prying off the metal top when the bic mini is out of juice, you can turn the thing into a pretty good firestarter/ sparker. As I always say, the best backup firestarter to a Bic Mini is the bic Mini itself (and another Bic mini).

+1 on the great, well illustrated instructions, Mike. What a great book you've written.


Scott Haddon
(rebeldawg63) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: "Thumb-friendly" Bic on 07/17/2011 00:03:17 MDT Print View

I also have these, 1 in cook kit & 1 in first aide kit. I also like that if you keep it lit for any extended period of time, you don't burn your thumb when you try to relight it. Have read the book 3 times and have lost a lot of weight. We owe many thanks to Mike.


Rodney Mruk

Locale: Northeast Oregon
Question about Groovy-biotic recipes on 07/17/2011 22:17:58 MDT Print View


I have a question regarding your recipes in the book. I cannot find where the number of servings is indicated. Could you enlighten me as to how to determine how many servings are made as per your instructions. I can't wait to try these recipes. A great book!

Rodney Mruk

Chris Lucas
(ChemE) - F

Locale: SC
Tip #125 Save Even More Weight on 07/19/2011 16:47:28 MDT Print View

All my mini bics get the extreme version of Mike's tip which I posted here:

You can save another 2 grams with the same needle nose pliers.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week #92 on 07/21/2011 18:22:18 MDT Print View

Another really good one, Mike! This is what I try to do for more privacy and to avoid dusty, trodden down, often garbage-strewn overused camp sites. Also, in many wilderness areas, it is required that you camp 200 feet (at least 2/3 of the distance you recommend) from the trail and from water sources. I take it a step further by not camping at popular lakes, often following the inlet or outlet for a quarter mile or more to a more secluded area and then getting well away from the stream.

One thing I hate to see is a meadow full of bright-colored tents! I love "silnylon gray" because it is hardly visible in most places. I dearly wish that shelter makers (even some "cottage" ones) would stop using bright yellow, bright orange, bright green, bright blue.

It's a bit harder to stealth camp in areas where the bark beetles have run rampant. Sometimes the only place that's safe from "widow-makers" is out in a meadow! In those cases, I don't set up my shelter until almost dark, even when I've camped early, and strike camp as soon as I wake up, so my shelter is on the vegetation only during the time I'm sleeping.

There was a recent thread here (I'm pretty sure it was here and not on another site) that tried to equate stealth camping with illegal camping. I always thought that stealth camping was what you illustrate here, being secluded and unobtrusive for others' sakes as well as our own. Nothing illegal about it; in fact it's in line with both wilderness regulations and common courtesy!

Besides, this style of camping really cuts down the problem of snoring neighbors! :-)

Thanks again for promoting a camping style that all too many people ignore!

Edited by hikinggranny on 07/21/2011 18:24:25 MDT.

Thomas Burns
(nerdboy52) - MLife

Locale: "Alas, poor Yogi.I knew him well."
Hunting season on 07/21/2011 18:33:48 MDT Print View

I agree fundamentally with this advice about stealth camping -- except during hunting season. Then, I want every off-trail gun or bow hunter to know that I'm there. If I could set up, spinning lights and fog horns, I would (having been aimed at a few times too many. ;-)

Stargazer -- the guy with the bull's eye painted on his chest, apparently

Edited by nerdboy52 on 07/22/2011 04:34:37 MDT.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Re: Hunting season on 07/21/2011 18:54:32 MDT Print View

Usually it's the hunters who are camped in those dusty, overused spots next to the trail! That being said, I hang a good-sized hunk of blaze orange cloth on my silnylon gray shelter if I backpack during hunting season. I still get well away from the trail, but I camp more out in the open!

One nice thing about living in the Northwest is that Washington state has a 2-3 week break between "high buck" season in mid-September and the opening of general firearm hunting season in mid-October. This gives those of us seeking the elusive Alpine Larch a chance to get out and see it in all its golden glory!

Antti Peltola
(anttipeltola) - F
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week: Stealth Camping on 07/22/2011 03:28:35 MDT Print View

This is great tip as long as the rules of the area allow it - but why whoud the pack size or cooking make a difference?

I've done stealth camping as long as I remember, even 20 years ago with very heavy backpack and I have never felt the need to start the day without a good breakfast either. I mean, if you don't find a space to cook, it's likely that you don't find a spot big enough for sleeping either.

Waterless campsite could be a problem if you do not prepare yourself at all, but waterless areas can be seen on the map beforehand so you can take the water from the previous source.

Bradford Rogers
(Mocs123) - MLife

Locale: Southeast Tennessee
Re: Hunting season on 07/22/2011 09:47:02 MDT Print View

Thomas, judging by your pic, it isn't hard to see why you have been aimed at!

Alanna M
(muledog19) - F

Locale: Upper Peninsula of Michigan
Re: Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week: Stealth Camping on 07/22/2011 13:43:19 MDT Print View

Hi Antti, in the book Mike has other tips that tie in and explain his cooking-on-the-trail bit. Don't worry, he isn't advocating skipping breakfast!!! From what I've read I'd say Mike is passionate about good food and eats some hearty & delicious stuff on the trail.

As for pack size making a difference, where I live almost all the big-old growth trees have been logged, so the forest here is relatively young and densely packed with trees. This makes moving off trail a real challenge (and sometimes down-right miserable), especially with a big traditional pack on my back. I have been working on shrinking my pack size, and this is already making off-trail travel noticeably easier.

And lastly, traveling light allows you to sleep in some pretty small spaces. All you need is level earth in roughly your body shape. And as I recently discovered with hammock camping, now I don't even need level ground...

Anyway, hope that helped make the tip a little clearer! Alanna