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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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Jesse H.
(tacedeous) - MLife

Locale: East Bay, CA
Re: Baking soda to dry up my sticky colgate dots on 09/27/2011 02:07:22 MDT Print View

I've read a bit of baking soda as a "dusting" works well to mitigate the dot's stickin' together :D

Edited by tacedeous on 09/27/2011 16:05:59 MDT.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Speed, distance and time on 10/13/2011 17:46:50 MDT Print View

Good tip. I enjoy keeping track of my mileage, pace and time. It is interesting to consider the relationships of speed, time and distance.

speed table

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Right ON! on 10/13/2011 17:48:09 MDT Print View

George - My main MAN!

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
"Ultralight Tip of the Week" Milage on 10/19/2011 13:55:35 MDT Print View

Great tip Mike. This jives almost exactly with our hikes.
About 2.5mi/hr generally. Climbing steep grades is closer to one, downhill is closer to 3 and a bit. Thanks for the confirmation!

Hamish McHamish
(El_Canyon) - M

Locale: USA
tarp direction on 10/25/2011 12:50:13 MDT Print View

Why does Mike advise aligning the tarp ridgeline with the wind, while Ray J. says to pitch the tarp broadside to the wind? Maybe by "wind" Mike means gentle breezes that provide ventilation, not strong cold WIND...?

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: The sweet stench of nature on 10/25/2011 17:12:41 MDT Print View

"What the....?

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

I don't have any left. :(

Trevor Wilson
(trevor83) - MLife

Locale: ATL -- Zurich -- SF Bay Area
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 11/02/2011 01:41:48 MDT Print View

Mike C! Thanks for making the book available in Kindle format. I just got it! Thoroughly enjoyed the reading while travelling this past weekend.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Tip # 108: Waterproofing the Gear on 11/02/2011 14:33:22 MDT Print View

+1 on the trash compactor bag. It is also a great way to keep your clothing dry and organized in your shelter, or to waterproof everything while camped by putting your *dry* pack inside the trash compactor bag overnight. No dew or rain-soaked pack to put on at sunrise {{{{{{shudder}}}}}}}

victoria maki
(crazyhikerlady) - F

Locale: Northern Minnesota
re:Ultralight tip of the week on 11/03/2011 05:09:08 MDT Print View

I have a suggestion about how to pack in the morning. How about putting the wet tarp on top of everything, so if it's a nice day you can take the tarp out during a break and dry it out.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: tarp direction on 11/03/2011 07:08:37 MDT Print View

A lot of pitching a tarp has to do with wind direction and the way the ground slants. Within these two constraints, is how I pitch my tarp.

Anyway, I suspect that using a RayWay tarp (A-Frame), it would be best as shelter against a side wind. Here is the address to Jardine's web site:
Note that his ridge line is set up level, or close to it. This means that set up with the wind at your feet, it will blow through with no effect on the wind...well, he does use beaks to compensate. His tarp is also wider with little space against the ground.

Mike uses a tapered pitch...About "belly" height down to a "few inches above knee height" at the tail. It will deflect more wind and still provide protection. But with a smaller tarp, his sides are more open, hence his recommendation, at a guess. It is smaller and lighter, but more finicky about setups... Typical of UL gear.

Tim Zen
(asdzxc57) - F

Locale: MI
Super-Spackle on 11/09/2011 05:39:57 MST Print View

Mmmm -- looks highly yummy. One could use a pastry bag to mix and then shoot it in to a platty.

Eddy Walker

Locale: southeast
Re: Super-Spackle on 11/09/2011 10:52:52 MST Print View

I like Joe's Moose Goo but this is something different. I know with the Moose Goo it is hard to squeeze when the temps get below 40°. I wonder if this super spackle is the same way

Edited by Ewker on 11/09/2011 10:53:28 MST.

Brian Barnes
(brianjbarnes) - M

Locale: Midwest
RE: Clelland's Super Spackle on 11/09/2011 13:33:05 MST Print View

I whipped up a batch of this and wow, it's delicious!

I ended up using the entire 11 ounce containers of the almond and cashew butter which measures out to just over a cup each. The recipe ends up making ~28.7 ounces of Spackle and averages 153 calories/ounce (Fats=12.9 gram/oz, Carbs=8.3 grams/oz, Protein=3.8 grams/oz).

What I ended up with was too thick to pour into a platypus but as Mike says, you can thin it out with more almond oil. I ended up repacking it into 7 snack-size ziplock bags containing 4 ounces each. I'll work out the storage container later. I ate the residual on Ritz crackers, yum...

I tossed a pack in the freezer to see what happens to it (i.e. is it a winter food candidate?)

My grocery receipt totaled $32, so this batch cost me $1.10 per ounce. However, I have enough agave nectar, almond oil, and extracts to make a few more batches.

Trevor Conrey
(thevor) - MLife
Super-Spackle below 40 on 11/09/2011 14:56:13 MST Print View

All my experience with various homemade "energy gels, pastes, etc" is that they all tend to slow down when it starts to get chilly. Nothing like tilting a gel flask upside down and slowly watching your goop trickle down for 45+ seconds before reaching your mouth to let ya know that a) it's probably a little chilly or b) maybe you should have made it a little thinner or maybe a combo of both. In the end it still all works and you can always pre-warm under an armpit, in warm water while melting snow, etc.

Brian, I'll be interested to hear how the super-spackle fares in the freezer.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Super-Spackle on 11/10/2011 08:58:39 MST Print View

How about using it in Coghlan's squeeze tubes?

David Smith
I use a spoon. on 11/10/2011 09:44:15 MST Print View

Wow! Can't wait to try this! This is surely a huge improvement over my plain ol honey and peanut butter mix. I've never put it in a squeeze tube. In the winter, its convenient just to put it in a lightweight throwaway container with a screw on lid and just use a spoon.

Brian Barnes
(brianjbarnes) - M

Locale: Midwest
RE: Squeeze tubes on 11/10/2011 10:28:20 MST Print View

Dale - Good idea regarding the squeeze tubes.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: RE: Squeeze tubes on 11/10/2011 14:55:28 MST Print View

We've carried peanut butter and jam in them for decades (not the same peanut butter and jam). I don't trust them and always put them in a ziplock, although I've never had a problem. My wife's hiking favorite is PNB&J on a Sailor Boy pilot bread cracker. Or you squeeze a little PNB in your mouth, followed by jam, and then a bite of bagel or whatever. Shades of Animal House!

Kevin Babione
(KBabione) - MLife

Locale: Pennsylvania
Squeeze Tubes on 11/11/2011 08:55:57 MST Print View

I've used the squeeze tubes as well and also put them in their own quart-ziploc for safety's sake. The only problem I've ever had was with the plastic "tube closer" piece cracking.

FYI - Campmor sells just those pieces so if you ever lose one or it cracks you can buy replacements.

I've migrated to individual serving packets (I get my PB&J from PackIt Gourmet) because it makes it easier to distribute the weight and the packaging weighs less when empty. There's also nothing to clean up when you get home...

Brian Barnes
(brianjbarnes) - M

Locale: Midwest
RE: Clelland's Super Spackle - Freezer test on 11/11/2011 20:19:11 MST Print View

So the super spackle spent two nights in the freezer and it does indeed freeze solid but I'm able to snap off chunks of it with easy and they quickly melt when eaten. At the consistency I made it (think peanut butter thickness) there is no way it would be delivered via a squeeze tube when temps are frigid.

Edited by brianjbarnes on 11/11/2011 20:21:49 MST.