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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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Ben Egan

Locale: The Grid, Brooklyn
too cool on 04/28/2011 13:52:51 MDT Print View


I'm buying the book. "for my dad". then I'll steal it from him.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/28/2011 14:00:45 MDT Print View

Ordered mine form Bookdepository, only to be told the next day that it was out of stock and my order was being funded ?? Will have to try Amazon.

Evan McCarthy
(evanrussia) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Dubious -- But Now Ecstatic on 04/28/2011 14:11:00 MDT Print View

Mike C,

Your book is a masterpiece of well-explained, simple, and important tips (not all of them obvious). I didn't think I'd get much out of it but found exactly the opposite to be the case. I feel like having extra copies around to evangelize.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Tip #31 on 04/28/2011 15:48:53 MDT Print View

On behalf of all the folks like me who like to stop in mid-afternoon, I'd like to say there is nothing at all wrong with going light and doing what Mike calls "traditional" camping! Your backpacking schedule is a matter of individual preference, not pack weight, although definitely more comfortable with a light pack.

Some of us prefer to stop early before the afternoon thunderstorms get going (call it a safety measure to avoid lightning), especially if the next stretch of trail is exposed. Some of us want time to fish. Some of us want to stop early to explore an area close to where we camp. Some of us enjoy staying in an extra scenic campsite and will stop when we find it. Some of us are getting too advanced in years to enjoy hiking more than 6-7 hours a day, even with an "ultralight" pack. Many (unless retired like me) whose backpacking is limited to weekends and holidays may have to stop early to find a campsite at all (I'm thinking of some of the brushier areas of the Pacific Northwest where places to pitch a shelter are quite limited, resulting in cutthroat competition for sites on holiday weekends). Hike your own hike and don't let Mike convince you that it's wrong to stop early if that's what you want!

Edited by hikinggranny on 04/28/2011 15:50:34 MDT.

Rob Vandiver

Locale: So Cal
RE: Tip 31 on 04/28/2011 22:27:41 MDT Print View

I gotta say, Mike, I read this tip when you posted it to the forums some time earlier, and it really changed the way I will approach solo trips from now on. I have usually called it quits late afternoon, and after setting up camp and puttering around, would suddenly find myself a little bored. I have been stuck in a pointless routine since my 35-pound pack days when weariness would force a stop after X time and Y miles. Also, thanks to you I haven't had a wristwatch out in the back country for the last couple of months and I haven't even missed it! Or a headlamp, now that I think about it.


Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
bear country on 04/28/2011 23:14:40 MDT Print View

Mike, your eat-on-the-trail suggestion is what I do in bear country to keep food smells off gear as much as possible... and away from "camp".

Edited by Danepacker on 04/28/2011 23:15:18 MDT.

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Ring thing on 04/28/2011 23:46:38 MDT Print View

Funny, I saw those rings and thought, "man, there's no need for that thing" and so I cut em' all off with a good pair of dykes. Based on the responses here, either we're all normal or...... ! Got two copies on the way, one for me and one for my hikin' buddy. This book looks fun. Can't wait for it. Mike, thanks. And lookin' forward to Thursdays like I used to for Tuesdays, like when the four-part PCT story was debutting. Really enjoyed that for sure.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Ring thing on 04/29/2011 00:00:31 MDT Print View

On a few shelters, you can use two trekking poles with the tips up and together. However, some shelters do not have a pocket to hold the two tips together. That is what the ring is for. A small ring won't make it, but a big ring will. The plastic ring holds the two pointy tips together.


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 04/29/2011 03:31:10 MDT Print View

Ultraligh Backpakin' Tips had me laughing at every page turn. Either the text or the pics were getting to me... a really good little book.

But, I don't think the butt slide is for me. Somehow, the image evoked of a 60 year old man sliding down a hilloc with pants waving in one hand and shouting "YIPEE" sounded a bit undignified. But what the hey, ya' only go around once.


Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Tip #31 on 05/01/2011 03:15:11 MDT Print View

I don't find that my transition from hiking to camp or vice versa is faster with my UL pack. As a good UL hiker most of my gear is multi-use, this means that if it's raining I'm hiking in my tarp and I actually sleep inside my backpack since it doubles as a full size bivi! I own a full size Exped Auriga tent, which as Exped mentions on their site, literally sets up in two minutes. I fiddle a bit longer with my poncho before it is setup as lean-to or A-frame. I also find it faster to pull tent, mat and sleeping bag out of a traditional pack then taking my virtual frame mat from the bivi-bag-pack; taking the guy lines from the pack which in hiking mode function as pack compression strap; taking all the stuff out of the pack, taking the filling (which are spare clothes) from the shoulder straps and hip belts, turning the backpack inside out and putting mat and sleeping bag inside the bivi in sleep mode. Going from camp to hiking is just as cumbersome, since all the multi-use gear has to switch back from camping to hiking mode again.

Don't get me wrong though: I love my gear and wouldn't want to have it differently, but for me it does take more time to transition from hiking mode to camp mode with my UL kit then with my old traditional gear.


Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/01/2011 03:49:49 MDT Print View

"taking the guy lines from the pack which in hiking mode function as pack compression strap" Great idea.

The Exped Bivy Poncho on your kit list also looks interesting.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/01/2011 05:19:31 MDT Print View


Jason, actually my posted gear list on this site is not up-to-date anymore. My Exped poncho was replaced by the Go Lite poncho, most important reason was that the Exped weighs twice as much. I also like that the Go Lite is longer, so it covers better as a tarp. I do like the double sided buttons on the Exped though, so that it can be used as poncho, which I actually did on one or two occasions.

Cheers, Eins

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
"trad" vs UL on 05/01/2011 17:42:06 MDT Print View

Just so y'know, my definition of "traditional" backpacking is based on my work at NOLS. That usually means elaborate tents and equally elaborate cooking for both dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning.

And - My definition of ULTRA-light backpacking usually involves no shelter at all (except as my pillow) because I'll almost always sleep out under the stars.

So - there is a profound difference between these two skills, at least from my set of experiences.

Mike C!

Thomas Trebisky

Locale: Southern Arizona
Right on target on 05/04/2011 12:53:18 MDT Print View

Tip 31 hits the heart of what I have realized about going light. My goal now is to be comfortable on the trail, not comfortable in camp! This is not a "gear revelation", but a "mindset revelation".
I want a copy of the book when/if it becomes available, this is good stuff.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
The book is NOW available! on 05/04/2011 16:04:58 MDT Print View

The book is NOW available!

Manfred Kopisch
(Orienteering) - F
It still shows "Out of Stock" and there is no "Add to Cart" button :) on 05/04/2011 16:20:52 MDT Print View


I tried to order right away, but it it is still showing as "Out of Stock"


Josh Newkirk
(Newkirk) - MLife

Locale: Australia
book on 05/04/2011 16:22:28 MDT Print View

Yeah I just ordered one off amazon cause bpl is out of stock.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/05/2011 12:52:17 MDT Print View

There are more books on order. I was expecting them yesterday so please sign up for a stock-alert to receive an email when they're back in stock.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week May 5, #89 on 05/05/2011 13:12:21 MDT Print View

Thank you, thank you, MikeC!, for your tip #89 on the plastic bags for feet. I now know that I am not alone in preferring this method, and that (unlike the opinion of some) I am neither silly nor stupid!

For those of us who live where there's a Fred Meyer store, the larger size plastic bags in the bulk health foods section work better than bread bags, IMHO. They're the same weight plastic (quite a bit heavier than produce bags) but don't have the hard-to-clean pleats in the ends that bread bags have. I've always asked if I can take a few extra and the clerks haven't objected. 2 pair are 0.6 oz. and $0.00. For those in other parts of the country, check the plastic bags in your local store's bulk section (the bags have to be heavy enough to hold several pounds of bulk almonds or jelly beans).

I swear my feet get wetter hiking through a dew-soaked meadow than they do fording a stream! It feels that way, anyway!

OK, I had to heap on some praise after my critical remarks on last week's hint, but I really do greatly appreciate this one!

Edited by hikinggranny on 05/05/2011 13:18:36 MDT.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/05/2011 13:13:58 MDT Print View

Recommend using UPS plastic bags and cutting them down to "sock" size.

They are free and tough enough to be used repeatedly without getting worn down and full of holes.

They work great for me and have kept my feet warm and "dry".

(Dry is relative in this case because the plastic bag is a vapor barrier and traps foot sweat. While hiking, I find I am warm, but stopping for a prolonged time, I can get a minor chill from the sweaty, damp sock).