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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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F. Thomas Matica
(ftm1776) - F

Locale: Vancouver, WA
Why Take the Chance??? on 08/13/2011 09:56:05 MDT Print View

I'd say if you must experience drinking from puddles, do it on day hikes when the consequences may not be so dire as when out for several days. Or hope that it doesn't strike until you get home. In an emergency, do what must be done and follow all sensible tips to assure (almost) a decent source. Some folks have a built in immunity to the bugs and some have built it over time. Why take the chance, use your filter or tablets. The water tastes just the same coming out of my filter as it does directly from the stream. There is a certain subjective pleasure that comes with drinking directly from the creek, so do so if you must.

Diplomatic Mike

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
How did our ancestors manage to survive? on 08/13/2011 10:17:00 MDT Print View

I always drink straight from mountain streams here in Scotland. The water might have the odd dead deer in it upstream. Adds to the taste.

I have to laugh sometimes when i meet some walkers boiling water. If only they knew the water they were drinking in their hotel the night before, came straight from a mountain stream, piped directly into the hotel. :)

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - M

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: How did our ancestors manage to survive? on 08/13/2011 11:21:11 MDT Print View

Yeah, well your body is used to it. Laughing at others boiling water shows how ignorant you are from your own personal experiences. If you told someone in your group to drink the water, and they got sick, you would probably change your mind and they would be very angry at you. You can get sick from the freshest looking high mountain streams. It can happen if you don't drink it every week.

Diplomatic Mike

Locale: Under a bush in Scotland
Pure water. on 08/13/2011 11:30:10 MDT Print View

I've introduced many 'foreign' friends to pure mountain stream water. None of them have ever been sick.
Modern man is too worried about 'what if'.

Research here in the UK points to modern societies infatuation with 'cleanliness' being a factor in the huge increase in asthma amongst the population. Everything seems to be cleaned with anti-germ this, and anti-bacteria that. Kids don't get a chance to build up immunity to anything.

I didn't mean to come across as poking fun, but sometimes i think we worry too much.

Eric Jahn-Clough
(ejcfree) - F

Locale: off grid
it just tastes better on 08/13/2011 11:41:31 MDT Print View

I can only speak from my own experience over the last 12 years. I drink lots of untreated water in the Rockies. I treat more in the North East, but by no means all. Evaluate the source to your own satisfaction and accept responsibility for any potential difficulties. For treatment I've used only Aerobic O7, a sodium chlorite solution sold as a dietary supplement that has no approval as a purifier. About 300 nights out and not sick yet. Excellent book, it's helped me go further in my enlightening.
Best to All, Eric

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: it just tastes better on 08/13/2011 12:25:21 MDT Print View

It does taste better, and I do it myself in areas I know well. I would never recommend a destination backpacker to fly in and do a trip in a new area and not treat their water. As Mike mentions, experience is key, and that includes not just judging the quality of the water in situ, but also knowing enough about the environment it came from to make as informed a decision as possible.

Craig Gulley
(cgulley) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Tip of the week. on 08/13/2011 20:04:43 MDT Print View

I thought perhaps the only thing we differed on was how to potty in the woods, LOL but last weeks tip of timing your actions is the last thing I would want to do. my life is meeting after meeting, get on a plane, have a meeting, drive to next meeting. I certainly don't go into the woods to worry about spending a few extra minutes to eat or break down camp.... still what a fantastic collection of useful ideas and great art work

Ron Cooper
(Skraeling) - F
Taking your tips to heart on 08/13/2011 21:45:38 MDT Print View

Ever since I bought your book, I have dropped 6 pounds from my skin-out weight. Thanks for the tips!

Ivan Sharichev
(ivanchous) - F

Locale: Moscow
I would like to order your book! on 08/14/2011 22:52:58 MDT Print View

Please tell me what some online shop which provides delivery in Russia!

Unknown abc
(edude) - F
RE: "Ultralight Tip of the Week" on 08/18/2011 17:12:15 MDT Print View

Thanks for the tips, Mike!

I like this one because it solves for the excuse of 'oh I can't pack ahead of time because that would mean putting my sleeping bag and camping food in the pack and you can't leave it like that for long'. Well, one can still be that much closer.

Recently after a camping trip I reorganized my gear, which over my years of Scouting has grown to the total of 3 Rubbermaid tubs not including sleeping bags, pads and other items too big to go inside. From experience I was able to adopt something similar to what you recommend. I put all my most frequently needed stuff in the 'top-of-the-stack bin'. The rest is organized accordingly in order of priority. Works GREAT to not spend eternity packing.

Edited by edude on 08/18/2011 17:15:32 MDT.

Pilate de Guerre
(deGuerre) - F

Locale: SE, USA
Mike on 08/19/2011 16:08:27 MDT Print View

Love these tips. I read "Lighten Up!" awhile back and it really got me in to lightweight backpacking. Thanks Mike.

John L Collins
(WVCubDad) - MLife

Locale: Not too far off the Tuscarora Trail
For Ivan on where to get Mike's book on 08/27/2011 17:02:26 MDT Print View

Hi Ivan,

If you have a Kindle or other electronic reader you can get it that way. I actually got my copy of Mike's book specifically for my Kindle as my dear wife has really started putting her foot down about "more books and more camping gear and more Scouting stuff" in our house.

The cartoons are still great, the info is fantastic and you can also get Lighten Up and Lightweight Backpacking on the Kindle as well as a host of other interesting outdoor related titles.

Hope this helps.


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
"Ultralight Tip of the Week" on 09/02/2011 02:20:32 MDT Print View

Mike, Your gear lists are excelent! Last week Hurricane Irene really hammered the High Peaks and Northville/Placid Trail forcing closures of the eastern trails. Hopefully, they will be opened back up by the end of the month. Till then the western regions are open.

Ivan Sharichev
(ivanchous) - F

Locale: Moscow
Re: For Ivan on where to get Mike's book on 09/04/2011 12:07:57 MDT Print View

O! its realy easy way! =) I did not think about it/ thanks!

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Spreadsheet on 09/07/2011 10:52:20 MDT Print View

One of the things I have with my spreadsheet is a column for "amount". In other words, if I carry two pairs of (identical socks) then I will put two in that column. That makes it really easy to calculate weight. I just put in zero for stuff that I don't count. It's still on my spreadsheet, which means it can be included next time (e. g. winter stuff). Since my spreadsheet doubles as my checklist, I don't have to worry about forgetting something (the list has everything, even though the weight of everything isn't calculated). It's very easy to check something off, even when it isn't brought ("tent, over there, check; snow shoes, not bringing, check; etc.").

Brad Bryant
(birddog) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 09/07/2011 11:11:15 MDT Print View

Just finished the book and it was great. Now I will get my scouts into bringing thier pack weight down...thanks Mike

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Re: Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 09/07/2011 11:17:16 MDT Print View

I also use the zeroes and ones in my spreadsheet. There's supposed to be a way to print the thing out (to use as a checklist) omitting the zero lines, but after being retired (and away from my Excel course books) for 11 years, I've forgotten!

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
RE: Being stinky on 09/08/2011 19:05:20 MDT Print View

As much as I admire and try to follow Mike's tips, this may be one I disagree with, depending on one's definition of "stink."

If by "stink" one means not taking a full shower each day, not using perfume or after shave, and having a mortal fear of sweat drying on your body, then I agree.

But if one means ignoring personal hygiene to the point that one positively reeks with that sweet-sour overripe stench, then I have to disagree (I suspect we all have come across such a human chemical warfare device).

Being somewhat prone to rashes and skin afflictions I have to maintain a fairly high level of cleanliness while backpacking, so maybe I go overboard a bit. Even if I didn't I would never get to the point that it is extremely unpleasant to be anywhere but upwind of me.

Keith Selbo
(herman666) - F - M

Locale: Northern Virginia
Hey! This is BPL! on 09/08/2011 19:57:16 MDT Print View

What does stinking have to do with ultralight? I'd prefer this guy sticks to useful tips, and not subject us to his personal choice to let himself go when he's on the trail.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: Hey! This is BPL! on 09/08/2011 20:10:32 MDT Print View

"What does stinking have to do with ultralight? I'd prefer this guy sticks to useful tips, and not subject us to his personal choice to let himself go when he's on the trail."

This IS a useful tip. Don't bring soap and other smelly toiletries - it is okay to stink.