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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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Joe Kuster
(slacklinejoe) - MLife

Locale: Flatirons
Re: Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week: Stealth Camping on 07/24/2011 11:43:39 MDT Print View


The issue with the cooking in camp is a entirly different mindset. The initial reason I was exposed to this technique is aggressive bear avoidance. For some areas (Yosimite Valley for isntance), this was paramount to a safe trip. Some in the UL community have adopted the same technique (not all of us mind you) but for a different reason(s).

The primary reason I use this technique is that you can choose your campsite with completely different criteria than your cooksite, so you can enjoy your meal on an exposed ridge line with a view while camping in a more protected area.

Mileage is the second reason, you can often eat on the trail at a excellent cooksite when your hungry, not necessarily when you are ready to bed down. That way after you've finished dinner you can still tick off a few miles before dark if you've still got some energy and aren't desiring a prolonged campsite atmosphere. This is a big deal during the winter months as the nights can be much longer in some areas and you simply may not need that much time in camp and instead can be skipping down the trail in the dusky light.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
stealth camping / dinner on the trail on 07/24/2011 11:55:08 MDT Print View

Reply to Joe -

I just got back from a nice trip in Yellowstone.

Me and my pal Erika cooked during the hike, and then stealth camped. So many wonderful benefits, both practical and philosophical.

A - You can cook near water, and clean-up is easy.

B - I always find a renewed energy burst after dinner on the trail.

C- We hiked right until sunset. Our campsite was based entirely on a nice flat spot.

D - we were in grizzly bear terrain, and it just "felt" safer with no kitchen area nearby.

E - It was easier to hang the food because it was all in a few stuff sacks, because we were really tidy when we packed up after dinner.

Everett Vinzant
(wn7ant) - MLife

Locale: CDT
Eating on the trail... on 07/28/2011 16:00:04 MDT Print View


You brought up something I've been wondering about. It sort of violates the bowling ball tip. I like to put all my food in a bear hugger. It's basically a 7 liter ditty bag that is contoured. It hangs easy. Point being, I've added weight, AND made a "bowling ball." However, eating on the trail is easier (for me, your mileage may vary). Is there something I'm missing?

Second, somewhat loosely related question. I've never seen a UL backpacking list that includes Bear Spray and/or its weight. Is it considered a consumable and not added to bpw?

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
spelling on 07/28/2011 23:19:33 MDT Print View

Whoa. I just read through this thread and I have to jump back a couple of pages:

I find it INCREDIBLY annoying when I find egregious misspellings in a published book. Confusing their/there and then/than in particular annoy me, and I'll tell you why:

I don't move my lips when I read.

What I mean by this is that, unlike some, I don't "sound out" what I read and then interpret the sounds. I just read. And I am a voracious and lightning-fast reader. When I run into a sentence that uses "then" when it should be "than" I actually mentally trip up a bit and have to waste 3 seconds of my life re-reading the sentence and trying to puzzle out what the cretin who wrote it is trying to say. I have actually abandoned books that make this mistake consistently. It is simply too painful to go on reading them, and I will gleefully thrash them on my Amazon reader reviews. Thus I disagree with George when he claims that "If you can undrestnad waht the syombls maen tehn the msseage is succsseful." Does that mean that as long as my patients survive then I'm successful, no matter what other complication they have? Obviously not.

If you are WRITING A BOOK then you are a PROFESSIONAL WRITER and should WRITE WELL. Actually, to be fair this is the editor's job, but I'll hold authors accountable to some extent, too. (Obviously this does not apply to forum posts- just published works. And, actually, I'm more lenient with fringe self-published stuff, too.) I agree that spell-checkers are a crutch and that editors who rely upon them should be flogged. It also doesn't help when the spell-checker tries to "help" by automatically changing a word that I spelled correctly into the wrong word. That really chaps me because it makes ME look like an idiot, and since I have a love of obscure words and complex sentence structure it happens to me quite a lot.

Colin Parkinson

Locale: Ontario Canada
Stealth Camping on 08/01/2011 18:44:32 MDT Print View

Hey Mike I just did the stealth camp thing last night as the Bruce Trail Association only allows you to camp at designated spots that are on average 100k (60 miles)apart. Nice!

P.S. I love stealth grey for illegal camping

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
stealth on 08/01/2011 18:48:36 MDT Print View

I feel strongly that as long as you are clean, tidy and don't build fires, no ranger (or land manager) would ever complain. When I do "cheat" and camp in a non-designated site, I make a very real effort to camp using all my skills and insights/

Renais A
Thursdays tip on 08/01/2011 19:50:42 MDT Print View

Was there a tip of the week last Thursday (7/28)? The last one listed on the BPL homepage is 7/21. I'm wondering if the URL didn't get updated.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: hammocks and stealth on 08/01/2011 23:32:17 MDT Print View

That's one thing I'm lovin' about hammocks-- you can camp where no one in their right mind would pitch a tent: 45 degree slope, rocks, running water? No problem! And you leave nothing but your footprints.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

eBook on 08/01/2011 23:45:13 MDT Print View

Is there a way to buy an eBook of this? I don't like to buy physical books because of the shipping costs and because they just sit around after I've read them once or twice. I see there is a Kindle version but I'm not sure if I could read that on my computer. I'd love to buy a nice pdf that I could just read on my computer.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: eBook on 08/02/2011 00:51:42 MDT Print View

You can download a free Kindle application for your computer and even you iphone or android. I have a Kindle and sometimes read the books on my computer or iphone. And what is really neat is the application will sync to the last page you read on a different electronic device.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Thx on 08/05/2011 00:10:24 MDT Print View

Thanks Nick. I'll do that.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Why eat off trail? on 08/05/2011 14:02:16 MDT Print View

Hey Mike,

Why is it so important for you that other people don't see you eating close to the trail? You really don't offend me is you're eating some cereals or trail mix, sitting on a rock on the trail. Is that an American thing? On some trails here in Europe you almost trip over other hikers on the trail. It doesn't bother me on my hike.


Henk Smees
(theflyingdutchman) - MLife

Locale: Spanish Mountains
Tip 152 + @Eins on 08/05/2011 15:00:03 MDT Print View

Hi Mike,
I just sent you an E-mail regarding Tip 152 [I didn’t know whether this tip has been opened for public (yet??), so I preferred to send you a “privy”]. If this has been discussed and you’d like others to chime in as well, just let me know and I’ll copy/paste the text here.

I’m Dutch as well (although I live in Spain) and I feel about the same. Maybe you’re right about it “being an American thing”. Nevertheless, Mike! has addressed this subject in the book (dunno whether you have same or not - if not, I’d strongly recommend it); he actually says, in Tip 92 where he writes about “stealth camp”: “Stealth means ......... To me this is very important, because (and this answers your question) it allows other campers (in this case, walkers) to enjoy the sensation of solitude in the wilderness."

Having said that I understand your feeling about being seen or not being seen from the trail, I must admit that, when we "finally" got here (we'd been walking for hours XC - there were no trails at all), I loved the feeling of having all the nature (in this case a high-altitude meadow near a lake) all for ourselves:
Lavaderos de la Reina

The lake at sunset:
Lavaderos de la Reina - laguna

Edited by theflyingdutchman on 08/05/2011 15:20:41 MDT.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Re: Tip 152 + @Eins on 08/06/2011 00:11:29 MDT Print View


Sure I agree that with camping it's a whole different story. Actually camping on the trail is not really polite indeed, so sure it helps others wilderness experience if you camp away from the trail and out of sight. Next to that in most European countries it's illegal to make a wild camp. I still make wild camps though and using stealth techniques helps me not to be found by a forest manager and it significantly reduces my impact on the environment and wildlife. Nevertheless, as I said, I can't imagine that if I'm sitting on a rock next to the trail eating a Snickers and another hiker passes me by, that I've just ruined his wilderness experience. I'm only taking a trail side break and I don't think I need to walk 200 meters off trail for that. In fact, going off trail for every break actually increases close to trail country side erosion IMHO.


George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Re: Tip 152 on 08/06/2011 14:04:05 MDT Print View

Anything that fits in the category of Tip 152* is one of the best parts of backpacking to me. I process this tip while hiking.

I believe the tip about cooking away from the trail relates to the stove set up and spreading out of gear that usually accompanies that activity. IMO it depends on how busy the trail is that you are on.

On a recent trip my wife and did not see anyone else for hours before and after we cooked our lunch. There was a perfect spot near a nice stream. A nice sitting rock. It was a few steps from the trail, but no one knew we were there. So it depends.

* If you don't have the book, then you don't know #152 : )

Of course, 153 is the best tip.


Keith Selbo
(herman666) - F - M

Locale: Northern Virginia
#105 on 08/11/2011 20:52:08 MDT Print View

I liked all your tips so far except for this one. You can't tell if water is good unless you test it. You can only hope your luck holds out. I continue to see these unscientific testimonials on this site and frankly, I think it's editorial irresponsibly to print them without a disclaimer if at all.

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
Disclaimer on 08/11/2011 21:04:29 MDT Print View

I thought this was a pretty good disclaimer, personally: “Explosive diarrhea with a foul sulfurous odor.”

But in all seriousness, you can't be 100 percent sure of safety without first testing the water. If people are willing to take a little risk to drink fresh delicious spring water, Mike's tip should help them assess the source.

Edited by dtpaladino on 08/11/2011 21:07:08 MDT.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Disclaimer on water sources on 08/12/2011 12:07:27 MDT Print View

Mike, I agree. But drinking water right from the source is NOT for the inexperienced nor careless. I think this should have been a little more in depth, though. Including the main symptoms for the main two pathogens and the various bacterial diseases aquired by having a dead animal upstream from you would have made people a bit more cautious. Even as an appendix to the book to keep the tips flowing in a neat, informal way, this info would have been valuable to the new comer (perhaps to more than new comers...)

In the spring especially, this often requirs a good knowledge of the terrain. Indeed, winter snows can be contaminated if gathered too close to the ground, let alone runoff streams (often rocky but no water come summer) and artesian wells (water bubbling out of the ground may simply be runoff from a slightly higher elevation in spring.)Anyway, such experience is usually gathered through hiking the same area several times.

That said, I have been known to partake of untreated water. With a partner?? Well, I think I will zap it with the new fangled glowing thingy. Ya gotta keep the wife happy.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 08/12/2011 14:27:31 MDT Print View

I wish the tips were in separate threads so they could be followed easier.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Book on 08/12/2011 22:32:55 MDT Print View

I got the eBook (for the Kindle App on my Mac) about a week ago. I'm about 2/3rds of the way through and I've really been impressed. I've been reading a few other hiking/ultralight books at the same time and this one is the best. You might not agree with everything, but it's full of fresh thoughts and it'll get you thinking and mulling stuff over.

I'm at a time where I feel that my gearlist and techniques are getting pretty mature (ie. not changing a lot from trip to trip) and this book has added a bunch of fresh ideas/techniques that I'm stoked to try out.