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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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Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/05/2011 13:18:13 MDT Print View

I just received these books and have put them back in stock. Happy reading, BPL'ers.

Diane Pinkers
(dipink) - MLife

Locale: Western Washington
plastic bags with Gore-tex boots? on 05/06/2011 13:57:01 MDT Print View

So, I expect to be hiking at the end of the month, in what may be sloppy or wet snow conditions. My current boots are Inov-8 boots with Gore-tex linings. Gore-tex can fail eventually to be water proof. Would you use the plastic bags as a vapor barrier even in Gore-tex boots?

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
plastic bags is to help make your feet feel a little bit warmer on 05/06/2011 17:23:20 MDT Print View

REPLY to Diane:

The reason to wear plastic bags is to help make your feet feel a little bit warmer. Even if you have gore-tex shoes, full immersion up above your ankles in a stream will make your feet totally wet.

And, wearing plastic bags in a camp setting will definitely make your feet warmer.

Diane Pinkers
(dipink) - MLife

Locale: Western Washington
Plastic bags with Gore-tex on 05/06/2011 17:37:02 MDT Print View

Oh, yeah, I knew it was to make your feet feel warmer. I certainly wasn't thinking it would keep my feet dry in the event of a deeper stream crossing, that would be silly.

I guess it was a question of having plastic under a (possibly) breathable liner, vs. having it under more permeable shoes as is often advocated on this list. I wasn't sure if I'd have to be dumping water build-up out of my boots that might be otherwise evaporated off. If my boots don't dry out for three days, I'd have to be wearing plastic bags on my feet the whole time---I definitely get cold feet easily. I'm a little surprised that having the vapor barrier doesn't lead to trench foot eventually.

Then again, if the Gore-tex liner is failing, time to get new boots! Possibly a good time to switch to more breathable runners.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
BagTex! on 05/09/2011 11:59:10 MDT Print View

My friends and I have called the bread bag liners "BagTex". :)

A poor man's VBL that works well in a pinch. I've used them for ski touring during particularly cold and nasty weather.

Long live dirtbagging!

Edited by PaulMags on 05/09/2011 12:01:41 MDT.

Brian Austin
(footeab) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: BagTex! on 05/11/2011 15:20:29 MDT Print View

Not sure others do this, but I put a bag on my bare foot then my sock then another bag. Keeps my socks dry and my feet warmer. NOTE: I have sweaty feet. Feels kinda funny for 5 minutes, but then the vapor content of the inner bag and my foot equalize and its fine.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
bag - sock- another bag on 05/11/2011 15:25:11 MDT Print View

Reply to Brien:

Yeah! I like the sound of that system!

That seems like it would work GREAT!

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
AHA! on 05/11/2011 22:11:02 MDT Print View

AHA! Now that you've recommended light neoprene diver's socks I feel a bit vindicated.

For over a decade I've been using them over a pair of thin polypro liner socks to keep my feltpac liners dry in winter. I've also used them with my leather 3 pin backcountry boots.

I take 3 pair of polypro liner socks to insure that I've always got a clean pair on week long winter trips.

Susan Papuga
(veganaloha) - M

Locale: USA
Tips 80 & 84 on 05/12/2011 04:19:30 MDT Print View

#80 loose laces - For easy adjustment to laces, just use a pair of the small, spring barrel-type lace-locks that runners and triathletes use. just push down the spring end, thread your laces through the opening and then either tie them off to the front of your laces at the bite in the lace well or cut them off to fit so that you have just enough bitter ends to provide enough room to put yout shoes on or off. you can then "reeve" your laces in and out through the lace lock to adjuct without retying, etc like you have to if you just tie your shoe by the old-fashioned bow-loop method.

#84 - footbeds. best over the counter orhtotic is Superfeet. They are relatively cheap, lightweight and highly durable and last a long time. BTW, the things that come with most shoes are just psuedo-carboard type junk that do nothing for support, cushioning or stability, so it's just wasted weight. After countless marathons, half-ironmans and ironman and several pricey pairs of custom orthotics, i still use Superfeet in my trailrunners and other hiking shoes or other athletic shoes for gym work or events other than intense long distance endurance sports.

nanook ofthenorth
(nanookofthenorth) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/12/2011 13:06:29 MDT Print View

Really enjoying the series... but is there any way this could update with the rest of the website on Tuesday lol?

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
what I use on 05/12/2011 13:25:06 MDT Print View



Spenco Jelly - PolySorb Cross Trainer Insoles

about $11
(as per tip number 84)

(and see here)

Edited by mikeclelland on 05/12/2011 13:32:04 MDT.

jeffrey armbruster
(book) - M

Locale: Northern California
loose laces on 05/12/2011 13:29:02 MDT Print View

Great series. However, I have to differ here. I have foot/ankle issues and have found a super loose lace to be absolutely disasterous. Obviously everybody's needs will be different when it comes to feet. My mantra is: your boot/shoe is only as good as it's lace-up. What that means has to be discovered by each individual. Also of course for me at least terrain also dictates how I lace up my boots. FWIW.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: loose laces on 05/15/2011 06:14:57 MDT Print View

Feet are as different as fingerprints. Sometimes shoes need inserts. Sometimes they don't. Footbed design will effect that as much as lacing and inserts. Hiking in the ADK's, I mostly agree with your comments, though. With trail runners, you do not need a lot of lacing. In the High Peaks area's, you do, though. Up hills are OK. The long/steep downhill hikes are enough to mash my toes off, though. Stopping and tightening laces helps to prevent this, distributing pressure against the top of my feet. With two or three peaks per day, too much fiddling with laces to fool around more than once, tightening on the first 30 degree downhill (many are much more than that, at least for a about quarter mi.)

Inserts mainly serve two purposes. 1) Correct any walking problems (orthotic use.) 2) Comfort.
Supernating or pronating (most common) is a common problem for older hikers. Inserts can help correct these types of walking problems. Comfort is often focused around relieving impact pressures around feet, ankles, knees and through out your skeletal system. Arch problems are a common problem, too.

In contrast to using inserts and thin socks, I use a pair of extra thick wool hikers, sometimes two, and no insert. This seems to do the same job of cushioning impacts as inserts and allows me to completly fill the rear part of my shoe. (I have wider front feet than normal, narrow heels...)

Anyway, a little thought and analysis of your own feet will let you identify any problems, or potential problems, and apply suitable corrections before you head out. As I said, often, what works for one will not work for another...feet are all different. In fact you might find left foot/right foot anomalies that require a different aproach to each foot, not all that unusual.

Gabe Joyes
(gabe_joyes) - F

Locale: Lander, WY
I like mine snug on 05/17/2011 11:03:18 MDT Print View

I'm going to respectfully disagree about the loose laces technique. I mean, if it works for Mike, or anyone else, that is fantastic and ya'll should keep doing it.

I know as a hiker and a trail runner, I like my shoes to fit very snug all over my foot, except for around my toes, so that my shoes feel more like a natural extension of my foot. I feel much more confident with my foot placement in technical terrain, and I feel like I can take much quicker steps with out a sloppy fitting shoe. Also, if fitted correctly, having a snug shoe that minimizes friction can reduce blisters. To me, a loose fitting shoe encourages friction, and friction equals blisters. A snug fitting shoe tha doesn't fit "right" can be absolutely hellish too, but if you take your time and find the right pair it is great, at least from my experience.

Check out the Montrail Masochist, they have a nice lacing system that allows you to get a really customized fit.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
lose shoes on 05/17/2011 12:11:22 MDT Print View

I love the MOUNTAIN MASOCHIST! I wanna buy a second pair just because it's so perfect for my feet.

About the loose lacing. Don't ask me why, but loose shoes and super thin socks are magic for me. Just perfect.

I do lace 'em tighter when I scramble on rocks - and when I do long stretches down hill.

I don't trail run, but I walk sorta fast. I wrote about this because I have taught it to students (at NOLS and at BPL) as an option. And a lot of folks find it beneficial. They thank me because they would never have thought of it, they would have simply laced their shoes tight. I like this tip because it goes against the conventional wisdom.

And - this is a simple thing to test. If it doesn't work, then you just bend over and lace your shoes tight again.

I think my wording in the tip says to try this, because it "might" work well for your individual feet.

Peace from Idaho,
Mike C!


loose vs lose always confuses me, spell check doesn't help
(sorry if I mixed 'em up)

Edited by mikeclelland on 05/17/2011 12:12:32 MDT.

Nate Davis
(Knaight) - F

Locale: Western Massachusetts
Loose shoe convert here. on 05/17/2011 12:20:36 MDT Print View

I'm a fan of loose shoes too, and I run trails. I started trying them loose only a few months ago, but it's honestly been great. Super comfortable, feels like my feet are better ventilated and dry faster. Just make sure the fit's right.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
No loose shoes here on 05/17/2011 12:34:50 MDT Print View

The only time I have ever gotten blisters on my feet on the trail( and they were bloody and bad) was when I left my laces loose on an Emigrant wilderness trip. Same trail runners, same socks I usually use. The only difference were the loose laces. Must be one of those individual thing.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/17/2011 13:15:50 MDT Print View

Me, too--heel blisters! I have unusually narrow heels. Also, I'm more apt to turn an ankle in shoes not firmly laced.

Everyone's feet are different, and any suggestion is worth a try!

Edited by hikinggranny on 05/17/2011 13:17:17 MDT.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Loose shoes on 05/17/2011 17:53:40 MDT Print View

I'd worry more about loss of control off trail or on rough trails with my feet sliding around in the shoe. Or possibly trashing an ankle. As things stand, I lace my Roclite 370's farly tight around the ankle area for control/support and a bit looser below a surgeon's knot at the top of the instep, but still not what I'd call loose. Just enough to allow for foot swelling. Control is my number one priority.
YMMV, as always.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week 80/84 on 05/18/2011 11:38:23 MDT Print View

I, too, prefer loose trail runners. I began this a while back when the top of feet would feel sore (not injured) after long hikes. There is some slippage but I'm aware of this and therefore step lively yet surely.

I don't really like the foot beds although I agree they make sense and are worth a try.