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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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Rod Lawlor
(Rod_Lawlor) - MLife

Locale: Australia
Re: Hey! This is BPL! on 09/08/2011 21:52:55 MDT Print View

Those clean shirts start to get pretty heavy when you're out for more than five or six days!

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: Re: Hey! This is BPL! on 09/09/2011 10:22:48 MDT Print View

Yeah, that is why this is an ultralight tip. Don't bring a "camp shirt" or other niceties, even if it means you will be stinky. Of course, like everything else, you can always bring the camp shirt -- the point is, don't assume that bringing a camp shirt is standard. Depending on where you hike, you can sometimes jump in a lake, which helps reduce the stinkyness quite a bit.

I would say that I clean my hands and feet quite a bit. My hands for hygiene reasons, and my feet to prevent blisters. I've found that it doesn't take much dirt (which somehow sneaks in through the gaiters) to cause blisters.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: extra clothing on 09/09/2011 10:42:08 MDT Print View

It's pretty easy to wear you windshirt or other top while cleaning your base layers if they are that bad. Use a gallon zip lock for your sponge bath sink and a "washing machine" for socks and base layers.

Use very little soap, as the rinsing is the hard part. Of course your wash water should be dumped well away from any water source.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
stinky! on 09/09/2011 10:42:39 MDT Print View

The reason i wrote that tip, saying it's okay to be stinky, is because of some of the gear lists I've looked at on this site.

A lot of people will take special sleeping clothes, or several t-shirts into the mountains with them. I just wanted to point out that (from my experience) these items are un-necessary, you'll be fine without them.

Some people will add things like special camp buckets, towels and wash cloths to their list. These might be niceties that can be enjoyed, but they aren't needed.

So, I added this tip to the book as a way to give people permission to leave that extra t-shirt at home.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: stinky! on 09/09/2011 13:01:49 MDT Print View

So much for getting Paris Hilton on the trail. You really need to foster some diversity, Mike ;) No toilet paper, no pajamas--- much too primitive :)

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Stinky! on 09/09/2011 13:10:21 MDT Print View

Mike, yeah, you stink! I love this tip, and, I must admit to being downright bad smelling sometimes.

Extra clothing weighs a lot. I almost never bring any. My concession is midweight long johns for sleeping in. On a few occasions, I have needed to wear these, too. Solution? As you say, "Dont carry it!"

How do I stay reasonbly clean? Well, In the ADK's there is a LOT of water, and not too many people. A pot of warm water, a bandana, and a drop of soap will get me reasonably clean, when I start smelling myself. If I must, I can do my base layer or pants, too. All while wearing long johns, of course. I would not do this in town, but it IS the woods, right? Nobody takes offense. 'Corse, I never see anyone, either... Maybe because of the smell before I wash up? Hmmmm . . .

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
I have to admit, Mike has a point on 09/09/2011 16:38:52 MDT Print View

Regardless of what Mike says about TP, he's onto something here, IMO. Wash the hairy regions when they start to really reek or get uncomfortable, and as for the rest, it's usually pretty mild, so get over it. You're not gazing into some young chick's eyes over cocktails; you're out in the boonies. Nobody's keeping score. My 2 cents.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: stinky! on 09/09/2011 17:42:50 MDT Print View

excellent tip - your book is fantastic!

Thomas Burns
(nerdboy52) - MLife

Locale: "Alas, poor Yogi.I knew him well."
The sweet stench of nature on 09/10/2011 05:32:18 MDT Print View

>Regardless of what Mike says about TP, he's onto something here, IMO. Wash the hairy regions when they start to really reek or get uncomfortable, and as for the rest, it's usually pretty mild, so get over it.

+1 on this. Furthermore, before longer hikes, trim the hairy regions short so that they don't absorb so much stink. A bit 'o baking soda helps, as well (and it's useful for a number of other purposes).

On longer hikes, the only other clothes I carry is a spare pair of sock liners and a a set of seam-sealed Tyvek pants and top (available from US Plastics), and I only wear them on laundry day and occasionally in the rain.

Stink away, my friends. It's the real smell of humanity, not the artificial, chemically induced stench necessitated by the close quarters of industrialized civilization. That's what, in part, you're on the trail to get away from.


Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: The sweet stench of nature on 09/10/2011 08:17:17 MDT Print View

">Regardless of what Mike says about TP, he's onto something here, IMO. Wash the hairy regions when they start to really reek or get uncomfortable, and as for the rest, it's usually pretty mild, so get over it.

+1 on this. Furthermore, before longer hikes, trim the hairy regions short so that they don't absorb so much stink. A bit 'o baking soda helps, as well (and it's useful for a number of other purposes)."

What the....?

You mean, you guys don't shave your hariy parts before heading out?

Thomas Burns
(nerdboy52) - MLife

Locale: "Alas, poor Yogi.I knew him well."
The sweet stench of nature on 09/10/2011 08:32:24 MDT Print View

>You mean, you guys don't shave your hariy parts before heading out?

If I shaved all my hairy parts, I'd have to shave everywhere except the top of my head. Besides, there are some locations, like my back, that are unreachable by razor without the possibility of serious joint dislocation.

Ah, the effects of age. You get more hair every place but where you want it.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: The sweet stench of nature on 09/10/2011 09:39:46 MDT Print View

You CAN reach the hair on your back - all you need is a roll of newspaper and a lighter. Don't ask me how I know that.

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
It's okay to stink on 09/11/2011 18:53:48 MDT Print View

This discussion got weird real quick. I'm shocked no one mentioned the potential weight savings of pre-trip manscaping! I think that deserves a tip all its own.

Scott Bentz
(scottbentz) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Smelly on 09/12/2011 09:05:39 MDT Print View

That's why we have fires in the back country. So everyone smells like smoked BO.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 09/12/2011 20:29:44 MDT Print View

I don't mind being smelly; it's part of the backpacking environment! However, I do mind when I develop fungus in various skin-fold areas after several days of not washing. I also have to clean my nether regions daily due to a couple of medical conditions that would become serious if I didn't do so. I therefore carry diaper wipes. If used daily, a single wipe suffices to clean both the skinfold areas and the nether regions, and prevents both the fungusamongus and infections due to the medical conditions. Of course the used wipes are packed out!

I also have been known to take a quick sponge bath in the tent if I get uncomfortably sweaty. I'm just not brave enough to jump into a COLD mountain lake or to endure the bug bites I receive while trying to work up sufficient courage!

Feet, of course, are a special case, and I do dunk them in the creek every evening!

I do leave water, a washrag and hand towel and more wipes in the car at the trailhead so I can remove the worst of the dirt/stink before heading back to civilization.

Re shaving body hair--not a good idea! As any woman who went through childbirth in the bad old days can tell you, it itches like crazy when it's growing back in!

Edited by hikinggranny on 09/12/2011 20:34:37 MDT.

Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Hair down there on 09/16/2011 11:57:51 MDT Print View

I know a local esthetician (body waxer) who's had entire troops of forest fire fighters visit her before going on assignment for weeks to months at a time. A full "down there" wax (male and female) cuts down on what she called "dingleberries," reducing the need for TP - or as much of it as usual.

I still haven't quite recovered.

Edited by addiebedford on 09/16/2011 11:58:56 MDT.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"Ultralight Tip of the Week" on 09/16/2011 13:25:31 MDT Print View

"dingleberries".... that made my day.

Personally, I think I'd take the 'berries' over the itch of new hair growing back in.... not that I would know anything about that.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Hair down there on 09/16/2011 13:29:47 MDT Print View

lol at Addie post.

Rodney OndaRock
(RodneyOndaRock) - F

Locale: Southern California
Wilderness hygiene - white Smoke bath. tip from Les Stroud on 09/16/2011 13:59:52 MDT Print View

On the Survivor Man show, he suffocated a campfire with juniper or pine branches. The claim was that the white smoke would kill the BO bacteria, and you smell like a smokey campfire instead of malodorous stink.

Smoke bath.

Edited by RodneyOndaRock on 09/16/2011 14:18:19 MDT.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Hair down there on 09/16/2011 14:01:07 MDT Print View

This is for all you English/poetry nerds out there.....

(My apologies to Mr. Longfellow)

I once got the Itchie Goomies,
I should have washed in Big-Sea-Water,
To avoid the dingleberries
The harsh red dingleberries
Dark behind me rose the forest,
Rose my hairy, smelly nether region,
Rose my cojones with rash upon them;
Smelly before I scrubbed them in water,
Scrubbed them in the clear and sunny water,
Scrubbed them in the shining Big-Sea-Water.
There my wrinkled old nether region
Housed my little "Hiawatha,"
Wrapped in his woolen cradle,
Made soft with moss and rushes.
Safely bound with shockcorded sinews;
Stilled my fretful wail by thinking,
"Hush! Next time wax those nether regions!"
Lulled myself into slumber, singing,
"Ewa-yea! my little ow-let!
Let thy cool cream soothe the "wigwam"?
With baking soda, soothe the "wigwam"?
Ewa-yea! my little ow-let!"