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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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Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Stealth campsite on 11/30/2011 00:58:59 MST Print View

If you stealth camp with a hammock, all you leave are footprints and maybe a couple stake holes.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Stealth camping on 11/30/2011 12:23:00 MST Print View

Wondering if stealth includes a small enough pack so you get mistaken for a dayhiker. A big honking sleeping pad strapped to the outside of a pack may give the plan away to an alert ranger. Ditto with a large pack.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Stealth camping on 11/30/2011 12:24:53 MST Print View

Ditto with the car left at the trailhead or parking lot overnight :)

Jeff McWilliams
(jjmcwill) - M

Locale: Midwest
Stealth Camping on 11/30/2011 12:40:16 MST Print View

HK Newman - I prefer Mike C's definition of stealth camping, which is to preserve the feeling of solitude in the wilderness, NOT to break rules or be sneaky.

In that case, it should be of no concern to me whether a fellow hiker or park ranger sees my sleeping pad and realizes I intend to spend the night sleeping somewhere in the back country.

If I have to worry that my actions could get me ticketed, fined, or expelled from a wilderness area, I shouldn't be doing whatever it is I'm doing.

Jeffs Eleven
(WoodenWizard) - F

Locale: Greater Mt Tabor
Re: Re: Stealth camping on 11/30/2011 12:44:56 MST Print View

Yeh yeh- car at the TH. That the one, man.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Stealth camping on 11/30/2011 13:37:01 MST Print View

@ Jeff: Yeah, I see what Mike is saying, though (for example) climbing out of the corridor of the Grand Canyon will likely require a last night camp at the usually packed Indian Gardens to get to the Rim by 10AM-ish (and Flagstaff with beer by high-noon). I could also see bring a subdued color shelter to a highly impacted area like the highly-visited California parks/wilderness areas, so I was more thinking out loud. Heck, maybe even a camo-colored tarp, like multicam.

stephan q
(khumbukat) - F
RE:Stealth Camping on 11/30/2011 17:29:53 MST Print View

Howdy, I think there needs to be a distinction made here. OB camping(out of bounds) is sneaky and against the rules. Stealth camping is legal and refers to a higher level of LNT camping. One sets up camp and leaves no trace, and also strives to remain out of view of anyone else in the area. stephan

Edited by khumbukat on 11/30/2011 17:32:05 MST.

Brian Austin
(footeab) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: RE:Stealth Camping on 12/01/2011 23:01:40 MST Print View

So, being considerate is stealth camping? Ok.

Just type be considerate; not a selfish egotistical a$$.

I know, a word with more than 3-5 letters in it...

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
Stealth vs Commando on 12/06/2011 01:34:26 MST Print View

I've heard sneakily camping in prohibited areas called "commando" camping (especially by the kayaking community when camping on privately-owned land) so I use that term to differentiate from the "stealth" camping that Mike is describing.

UL hikers are the sorts who often find themselves in remote wildernesses where there isn't much cumulative impact to campsites simply because almost no one goes there except a few UL crazies. In such a situation I'm all for stealth camping, but I will certainly follow the rules in any National Park I visit. The thing is- many National Parks will issue back-country permits that allow at-large camping, if you can get them, so I always try to.

Anytime that I am allowed I prefer to do it Mike's way. It's much more enjoyable and certainly less destructive than the mud-wallows that most designated sites turn into. Of course, if there was no such thing as designated campsites in high-use areas and EVERYONE tried to camp at-large then a lot of the most convenient spots would get thoroughly trashed instead of just the one designated spot. So I'm all for designated spots in high-use areas. I simply avoid high-use areas whenever possible.

Does that make me a hypocrite for stealth camping any time I can legally get away with it? (And don't get me started on the difference between "legal" and "moral".) Yeah, probably. But I'm just enough of a snooty elitist to not count myself among the mob of "common" campers with their Coleman tents, lawn chairs and beer coolers. As with most avocations the people who are true enthusiasts are usually in a different league from the more typical recreational user. I would challenge you to identify any of my camps after just a couple of days or a decent rain, so it's rather hard to argue that I'm not adequately LNT.

I mean- seriously- I'm a low-impact fanatic. For instance I am aghast any time I see someone cutting trail corners or otherwise contributing to "social" trails, and I NEVER use them except maybe when it gets impossible to differentiate them from the main trail. But I acknowledge that LNT are guidelines for the populace at large and I'm confident that my own standards are actually HIGHER than that, so my conscience is clear.

Edited by acrosome on 12/06/2011 01:36:03 MST.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
stealth camping on 12/06/2011 10:51:05 MST Print View

I try to obey the rules in National Parks and such.

But - I have had some situations where I chose not to once I was in the backcountry.

One example was in Yellowstone. I had a permit for a high ridge line camp, but there was a scary lightning storm as I was ascending up toward the high country. I chose to STEALTH camp lower in a valley. It just seemed dangerous to go up that high for reasons of a permit.

I did a very tidy job of being hidden from other users, and i kept a fastidiously clean camp.

Mike C!

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
"Ultralight Tip of the Week" on 12/07/2011 15:11:56 MST Print View

Mike, these tips really require a book, ya' in another one???
Well Done!!!

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 12/12/2011 14:16:53 MST Print View

A lot of wilderness areas (such as Wyoming's Wind Rivers) require you to camp 200 feet from established trails and 200 feet from water. This is fine, but there are some places where there is no way to do this if you want to avoid being too close to bark-beetle killed trees which are liable to fall in the next gust of wind. When I've been in such places I feel it is far more important to keep the required distance from water than from the trail, if I can't do both. If I have to be too close to the trail, I at least try to put my shelter where it's inconspicuous.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Pulley.... on 12/12/2011 16:41:51 MST Print View

Many years ago I figured out the pulley system as you describe, cept I also used a small 1/4" pully that weighed about an ounce, each. For full food bags, it sure helps. Especially with two or three people. The small Ti D-links were a BIG boon. Note that the dual links, Nitize #1, tend to avoid tangles a bit better making clipping/unclipping food bags easy on day hikes out of a base camp.

Also, a larger stick, around the size of a broom handle, makes a good haul stick without pinching off the blood supply to your hands.

Joe Kuster
(slacklinejoe) - MLife

Locale: Flatirons
Mike's Bearbag Diagram (two rope system) on 12/12/2011 16:43:29 MST Print View

Maybe this is that silly climber perspective, but in your diagram you have two individual ropes - one to serve as an achor w/ carabiner at the top of the limb and another to serve as a makeshift pulley that is joined at the carabiner.

An Alpine Butterfly to hold the carabiner would make a bi-directionally suitable knot that would allow a single length of rope to be utilized while not changing any other part of the system. While not common, I mostly associate the alpine butterfly when climbing with groups of three, it's plenty of strong for the job.

Michael Matiasek
(matiasek) - F - M
Mike's Bearbag Diagram on 12/14/2011 10:41:12 MST Print View

I like this idea, the use of pullys or even just a simple carabiner or ring sounds like a great way to prevent the string from sawing into the limb. On several occassions this added enough friction to my system that i had a heck of a time getting the bags down. While I really like the elegance of this system isn't the major drawback that there is still a line on the ground that a bear could cut? It would seem that the PCT method would be more full proof. Anyone who has used both care to comment? thanks!

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
big bear hang loads on 12/14/2011 10:49:02 MST Print View

Here is an image of the PULLEY system for lager loads that might cut into a branch.


Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: big bear hang loads on 12/14/2011 10:57:28 MST Print View

Mike's method shows two hanging ropes near the ground. The bears would get those in an instant.

The correct two-rope method leaves no hanging ropes near the ground.


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Re: big bear hang loads on 12/14/2011 11:30:10 MST Print View

"Mike's method shows two hanging ropes near the ground. The bears would get those in an instant.

The correct two-rope method leaves no hanging ropes near the ground."

Bob, I don't believe a straight bear hang will be as effective in well used camping areas. I have used them a lot in the ADK's, but I have seen bear hangs that are simply a matter throw it in a tree and pray. A head height hang is worse than useless. The PCT methode is a waste of time and complicates things in the ADK's. But, my question is how do you retrieve the line if there is nothing near the ground?
Anyway, not to argue this point, but, it *seems* like two lines is two lines, however you do it...even the PCT methode leaves two lines down.

Well trained bears, of course, know to look for a line. I often avoid this by wrapping the line as high as possible, around a tree 3 or four times. Anyway, In more than 30 year of camping, I have never lost my food. Basically, it depends on where you hike. So, as Mike says, YMMV depending on where you go.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
bears on 12/14/2011 11:43:33 MST Print View

I've camped a lot of places.

In the tundra of Alaska there are NO trees and REALLY BIG Grizzly Bears - and I've never carried a bear canister.

You just pile the stuff someplace near camp and hope for the best. No trees, no cords and I've never had a problem.

In Yellowstone NP they provide bear hang poles in each campsite and the rope is ALWAYS within reach of the bears, and I know of no problems there.

There are habituated bears in "some" places, but not everywhere.

The comment: "Mike's method shows two hanging ropes near the ground. The bears would get those in an instant." might be true in some high use sites, but certainly not everywhere.


Locale: Western Michigan
ROPE on 12/14/2011 11:51:04 MST Print View

ONE or TWO 50 foot ropes?
TWO 25 foot rope pieces?