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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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David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Ultralight on 12/14/2011 11:53:57 MST Print View

> "One of my ultralight friends suggested getting a haircut and trimming my nails before a backpack."

By cutting her hair before the round-the-world flight of Voyager in 1986, Jeana Yeager added 11 miles of range. A few ounces carried 24,986 miles adds up.

But seriously: Cut your toenails several days BEFORE a hike so the tender exposed skin underneath toughens before the hike. GCNP Hiking 101 stuff.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
cord lengths on 12/14/2011 11:55:06 MST Print View

I only advocate the TWO cord system for teams with REALLY BIG LOADS of food.

Like a team of 3 for a 10 day trip.

All other hanging can be done with ONE cord and NO carabiners.

THe BIG LOAD system:
A) 2x cords at 45 feet each
B) 2x tiny steel 'biners


The LIGHT LOAD (or standard) system
a 45 foot cord!

Edited by mikeclelland on 12/14/2011 13:10:50 MST.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
the two-rope counterbalance on 12/14/2011 12:13:04 MST Print View

two-rope method

I hope that this diagram is large enough to understand. Two ropes. Two bags. No rope is tied off to a tree or hanging down within reach.

This is the system that we used in Yosemite from 1978 until about 1999, when bear canister rules starting to come around. Based on the size of the trees, the size of the branches, the size of the bears, etc., I found the best length of rope to use for the A rope was about 60 feet. The B rope could be shorter, like 40 feet.

The extra length is what keeps you from having to pull the weight _down_. By getting out at an angle, you pull the weight out. That takes slightly less effort which is important with heavy loads.

I can still remember watching three guys trying to hoist-away on an army duffle bag that was filled with over 70 pounds of group food. First of all, a duffle bag hangs down so far that you have to have a very high branch. It takes a tremendous amount of effort.


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: the two-rope counterbalance on 12/14/2011 13:08:07 MST Print View

Thanks, Bob! I was thinking of a cable system of some sort. I would still have trouble with a stick that reached 10' into the air, though.

Most of my bear bagging for the last couple years has been easy, 12-20 pounds for up to a couple weeks out. With the kids it was more like 7-9 pounds a day, though. My two and a friend or two. Teenagers can EAT! So a 40 or 45pound load for 4-5 days was not all that uncommon. 70 pounds!!!!! Why didn't they split it? I have had branches come down, broken off, with less load than that....

45-50' feet is enough. I cannot really throw a rock with any accuracy much higher than that anyway. I *try* to make tis one of my first camp chores, find a tree and set a bear line...I really HATE doing this after dark.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: the two-rope counterbalance on 12/14/2011 13:35:58 MST Print View

In California, the only grizzly bear is the one on the state flag. Therefore, all we have to worry about are black bears. Worst case, a huge black bear can stand up and reach about as high as a man can, so if you can get the whole works up to eight or ten feet off the ground, you are good. Part of the problem is that some food bags hang down to far below the main rope.

If I have a small loop of rope hanging down from a food bag (the pull-down loop), then I generally need a stick of three or four feet long to reach it from where I stand on the ground. Bears obviously can't manipulate a stick or a rope, except for biting a rope.

Assign the teenagers to throw the first line up over the tree limb. That's what they ought to be good for.


jeffrey armbruster
(book) - M

Locale: Northern California
bear bagging on 12/14/2011 13:45:01 MST Print View

Don't underestimate the bears in the Sierra. Yosemite and environs is MIT for bears. They WILL leap through space, break off branches, stand their cubs on their shoulders and do a variety of other things to snatch your hung food. I'm just sayin'.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: bear bagging on 12/14/2011 13:53:37 MST Print View

Jeffrey, the best example of smart black bears was something that I watched in Little Yosemite Valley one time many years ago. A buddy and I had our sleeping bags stretched out on the ground as it was getting dark, and there was a tent not too far away with three people in it. They chose not to hang their food and they were not using a bear canister.

The bear came by and was sniffing around the outside of the tent, and my buddy and I watched this unfold. The three people sensed that there was a bear, so they suddenly emerged from the tent to scare the bear off. As they chased the bear away, suddenly bear number two shows up out of nowhere. It ducks into the tent, grabs up the food bag, and runs off in the opposite direction.

My buddy and I were laughing pretty hard when the three people returned to the tent.

Hey, that's what you get!

Now you know why the park service advocates bear canisters.

I still say that we need to ship some of them down to Roger Caffin so that they can have a fight with the wombats.


David Olsen

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Re: Re: the two-rope counterbalance on 12/14/2011 14:00:52 MST Print View

I have used this system Bob, and it rocks. Successfully dozens of times with large groups of people's food including with Bub's creek bears in Kings Canyon. I leave the doubled retrieval cord in, since I put hangs even higher, out of stick range. Just separate the two cord ends so worst case the bear grabs one end and just pulls the retrieval cord out of the system. Cord can be re-tossed over the bags to pull them down if this happens.

The second part of this system is defending the territory, big pile of rocks to throw, no cooking nearby etc.

Wouldn't use this system now with habituated bears when the canisters are less prone to
user error and they save a lot of time.

Still use this system with wild bears when doing my own trips. Keep em wild.

We had students wear climbing helmets when doing bear hangs, as both the limbs and
throw bag can become unpredictable projectiles.

Edited by oware on 12/14/2011 14:19:53 MST.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Re: Re: the two-rope counterbalance on 12/14/2011 14:08:01 MST Print View

"Assign the teenagers to throw the first line up over the tree limb. That's what they ought to be good for"

Ha ha, that was 15+ years kids are in their mid 30's.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Re: the two-rope counterbalance on 12/14/2011 14:10:26 MST Print View

Yes, David. The first time or two that somebody uses this method, it seems complex and problematic. Once you learn the subtle tricks, it goes pretty good. If you have a small weight of food, then you can do it solo with just your two hands. If you have a large weight of food, then it helps to have more hands.

I was a bear-bagger up until around 1999. One trip I went on had a requirement for a personal bear canister for each participant, so I had to go out and buy a Garcia (which was the only game in town for a while). After a while, I got used to it. Now I own about five different models.

The only extra part is the decoy system. I string up some empty paper bags with bright white cord, and it gives the bears something to go after until I get up to start throwing rocks at them.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: big bear hang loads on 12/14/2011 17:38:16 MST Print View

"even the PCT methode leaves two lines down."

Not the way I learned it. Could you explain how it leaves 2 lines down? I'm confused.

"The PCT methode is a waste of time and complicates things in the ADK's."


Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
bear hang art on 12/14/2011 17:42:53 MST Print View

The PCT method is (very) clearly drawn in the book.


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Re: Re: Re: big bear hang loads on 12/14/2011 18:04:01 MST Print View

Sorry, it was NOT the PCT system, some sort of hanging system I did not consider because of the wrong leverages. It just didn't make much sense to my mind. Hmmm....I don't seem to find the video offhand, but, I did find an approximate diagram at
(removed the period...damd punctuation...)

Been a long time since I looked at that stuff. The pulley system Mike described is actually a Marrison system and documented at Princton.

Edited by jamesdmarco on 12/18/2011 07:34:17 MST.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: bear hang art on 12/14/2011 18:04:59 MST Print View

"The PCT method is (very) clearly drawn in the book."

Precisely my point. Thanks for the visuals, Mike.

John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: big bear hang loads on 12/14/2011 18:12:11 MST Print View

James' link will work if you delete the .html. at the end.


...instead and you'll see the info that James was referring to.

Party On,


BTW the PCT method rocks! ;-)

Chris Conway
(LNTpunk) - F

Locale: Midwest
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: big bear hang loads on 12/16/2011 20:55:14 MST Print View

John, I'm guessing the bear bag link didn't work because of the period at the end of the .html was copied with the link text, the correct link is but oddly enough what you posted works too.

bear bagging

Enjoy, Chris

Jason G
(JasonG) - F

Locale: iceberg lake
skilman/pct hang technique on 12/18/2011 00:16:33 MST Print View

I prefer the Skilman bear hang technique seen here on the Down Works website (great store btw!.. located in Santa Cruz, ca)

It uses part PCT method and part pulley method with out having to worry about the bear taking out a tied off line..

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: skilman/pct hang technique on 12/18/2011 00:20:30 MST Print View

Jason, there is still a dangling rope that the bear can bite and pull on.


Jason G
(JasonG) - F

Locale: iceberg lake
yes.. on 12/18/2011 00:27:54 MST Print View

yea... but its just dangling... theres no tension. If he bit it it might just break the the last few feet off your line. IF he pulled it would just pull your food up to the top biner but it wouldn't release it.. The only way is if 2 bears worked as a team and one lifted the bag and one crawled out on the branch and grabbed the bag. but the idea is to use a branch that wouldn't support a bears weight..

its essentially the same as the PCT method but using pulleys too

pct method here

Edited by JasonG on 12/18/2011 00:32:04 MST.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: skilman/pct hang technique on 12/18/2011 04:26:28 MST Print View

The Skilman hang seems to not allow the food bag to be hung as high as with the PCT method because the jam stick must travel all the way up to biner 1 just below the tree limb? You may also need longer rope than what you might be able to get by with using PCT method.

Edited by jshann on 12/18/2011 16:12:47 MST.