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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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Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Re: Hair down there on 09/16/2011 14:16:36 MDT Print View

Doug!!! ROTFLMAO!!!!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Re: Re: Re: Hair down there on 09/16/2011 14:28:56 MDT Print View

Same here! If laughter is the best medicine, Doug has delivered an awesome dose!

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Hair down there on 09/16/2011 17:52:42 MDT Print View

Was enjoying am ice cream sandwich when I read Doug's "poem" ... anyone know how to clean ice cream off a display and keyboard?

"Scrubbed them in the shining Big-Sea-Water.
There my wrinkled old nether region

Scrubbing in the Big-Sea-Water (Lake Superior) will most cause your nethers to shrivel as well as wrinkle! Cold, that lake is!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Re: Re: Hair down there on 09/16/2011 18:44:08 MDT Print View

I nominate Doug as Poet Laureate of BPL!

Kat ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Stinky on 09/16/2011 19:31:12 MDT Print View

Healthy people with a good diet don't smell as much. To me the 12 grams of dried/cut baby wipes are well worth their weight. I don't mind getting dirty and I appreciate what a luxury it is to be able to get in my shower and turn on the hot water, but why be stinky if you don't have to...

Clayton Black
(Jivaro) - MLife
Archtek toothpaste tablets on 09/17/2011 20:49:45 MDT Print View

Not as fun as DYI toothpaste dots but handy. Don't know about the ingredients though. Great book and fun reading.

Toothpaste Tablets

jennifer ross
(jenhifive) - F

Locale: Norcal
a good toothpaste to dry on 09/18/2011 00:49:10 MDT Print View

I've been trying to dry colgate total for two months in the arid central valley of california. Its sill sticky and not hardening at all.

What's a good brand to make the dots?

Kristin Fiebelkorn
(kushbaby) - MLife

Locale: South Texas
Sensodyne on 09/18/2011 05:36:19 MDT Print View

After reading another thread on this, I did a "head to head" of Colgate (the one suggested - I already used it and had some on hand) and Sensodyne Pronamel (I had a sample from the dentist). I just put lines of each on wax paper and dried in room air (don't have a dehydrator). I'm in San Antonio - not really, REALLY dry, but not soggy either.

The Colgate was all spready and took weeks (and is still sort of sticky now). The Sensodyne was mostly dry by 24 hours, and curling up off of the wax paper in solid little "ropes" that you could pick up like sticks within 48 hours. This is even after moving the plates into the bathroom for convenience (where it's more humid). The OP of the other thread (also trying different brands for a trip) also found that Sensodyne worked very well (not sure what "type" of Sensodyne he used).

Aaron Benson
(AaronMB) - F

Locale: Central Valley California
Re: a good toothpaste to dry on 09/18/2011 09:18:13 MDT Print View

""I've been trying to dry colgate total for two months in the arid central valley of california. Its sill sticky and not hardening at all.
What's a good brand to make the dots?""

When I made dots in a dehydrator I tried several kinds. The regular old looking Colgate (plane-looking label, travel size, $.99) did the best and was ready after several hours. I tried the Colgate, Arm&Hammer Whitening and Crest ProHealth. Try to avoid stuff with "gels."

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Archtek toothpaste tablets on 09/18/2011 09:26:00 MDT Print View

Those are kinda cool. Little on the spendy side compared to a tube of paste. But they are already ready.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Stinky on 09/18/2011 17:41:19 MDT Print View

"but why be stinky if you don't have to..."

It's a guy thing, Kat. You know, snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, and all that stuff... ;=)

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
reply to Jennifer & Clayton on 09/20/2011 18:35:07 MDT Print View

Jennifer --- I used Colgate TOTAL recently (it's chalky and white) and it dried fast and perfectly.

I might have that wrong, I don't have the tube anymore so I can't be sure.

Clayton --- I love the pre made dots!!! THanks for the heads up!!!

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Highly recommended. on 09/20/2011 18:46:29 MDT Print View

I may regret admitting this, but I've shaved "there" for hygiene and ease of use.

I spent ten years in a row working 30-day trips on glaciers in Alaska for NOLS. The itchy factor was minimal, and the benefits of "no hassle" was worth it. I will do it again for my next big trip. Highly recommended.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Highly recommended. on 09/21/2011 12:33:48 MDT Print View

I regret it :) Too much info!

Re: toothpaste

I use Colgate liquid gel type toothpaste in a small wide-mouth vial so I can get it all.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Baking soda, not toothpaste on 09/21/2011 12:44:54 MDT Print View

Baking soda is a LOT easier on the environment--no white spots on the ground or foliage where you spit it out (you don't even need to spit it out!). Dentist recommended, multiple uses--what more do you want?

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
LATS on 09/23/2011 21:12:57 MDT Print View

Thanks Mike!

I had never heard this acronym prior to this article; I'll be using it now.

To be honest, I'm a little surprised that the simplicity of this recent tip has not sparked outcries of "DUH!" or "You're going to get people killed by telling them not to check the satellite forecasts!".

That said, I think it's a totally spot-on and relevant post, especially in this age of electronics, smartphones on the trail, and spreadsheet micromanagement/preplanning of every aspect of a trip.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Baking soda, not toothpaste on 09/23/2011 21:49:05 MDT Print View

"Dentist recommended, multiple uses--what more do you want?"

For it not to feel or taste like baking soda, blech.

Though it is amazing stuff.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
LATS on 09/23/2011 22:51:44 MDT Print View

It's surprising--and unfortunate--how many people are dependent on modern technology and don't learn to observe!

Mountains often make their own weather, and weather forecasters forecast for the cities, which are mainly in the plain.

Rarely, I've known thunderstorms to arrive in the middle of the night after a cloudless sunset. However, they usually announce their coming. One night a few years ago, I started dreaming that a big group of berry pickers was shining flashlights on my tent. That's probably because the night before a couple of jokers really were shining lights on my tent, ostensibly looking for a campsite about 11 pm, and because I'd been "grazing" on huckleberries all day. Finally, the thunder woke me up.

One time the bad weather didn't announce itself. In the Wind Rivers in August 2009, the evening I exited the mountains was cloudless and turning cold, seemingly indicating a clear night. About 2 am I woke up and heard gurgling in the motel's gutters--it was pouring rain outside in Pinedale! I was told by people who were up in the mountains (in a foot of snow) that up there the storm was preceded by thunder and lightning, though.

Out here in the NW, we often get some spectacular lenticular cloud formations when a storm front is moving in, especially around our large volcanoes:

Edited by hikinggranny on 09/23/2011 22:56:42 MDT.

jennifer ross
(jenhifive) - F

Locale: Norcal
Baking soda to dry up my sticky colgate dots on 09/24/2011 00:57:05 MDT Print View

Maybe i could shake the dots up in a bag so they don't stick and meld back together.

I just bought a tube of tom's so I think I'll try drying that but it's whitening too and maybe that's why the colgate's not drying? The weather is dry here and it's been months so I don't think putting it in the dehydrator will help.

Next time I run out of toothpaste I'll get sensidyne.

(cuzzettj) - MLife

Locale: NorCal - South Bay
RE: Tip of the Week on 09/26/2011 20:11:30 MDT Print View

Mike's book is fantastic. I start teaching an outdoors skills class to 12 middle school boys and girls next week. I will be using his book as my assistant teacher/companion. I have had the book for two weeks and am on my third read. Thank you Mike!!!