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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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Andy F
(AndyF) - M

Locale: Midwest/Midatlantic
tip #116 on 12/29/2011 08:00:52 MST Print View

I like the sequence of the weekly tips. This week shows us how to clean ourselves up after last week's bear encounter.

C Nugget

Locale: Pacific Northwest
materials on 01/02/2012 15:54:25 MST Print View

What would you use in a dessert environment like the Grand Canyon?? I guess smooth somewhat pointed rocks if you can find them in the creek beds? Everything there seems to be quite pointy and sharp.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
In the Grand Canyon on 01/02/2012 16:11:06 MST Print View

There is a lot of sandstone in the desert southwest. This is pretty good. Smooth stones will show up in the natural washes.

That said, many of the pants tend to be prickly and not at all appropriate.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: tip #116 on 01/04/2012 00:37:59 MST Print View

Holy crap Mike.

I've been a zero TP devotee for many years now...but I've never considered "The butt scuff on dewy tufts of grass". I always did love how my dog does that one on the carpet.

Rest assured, I'll be anxiously looking for my first opportunity...and hopefully not interrupted by a troop of scouts.

michael rankin
(michaelb41) - F
Waste on 01/04/2012 15:17:27 MST Print View

He said, "waist."

joseph king
(skinup) - F
moohie grande on 01/04/2012 19:38:27 MST Print View

#116 best tip ever

Scott Bentz
(scottbentz) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
No TP on 01/09/2012 10:19:58 MST Print View

Yes, I have been a no TP hiker for the past few years. Some of my fellow hikers just don't like the idea. My toilet kit is soap.

Anyway Mike, I have been wondering about one thing. Your book along with the video that's floating around showing the process shows you throwing the pieces of sticks, rocks, leaves, grass away from the cathole. I think you use the term "get it out of the system" or something like that.

My question is why? Wouldn't it be better to bury it in the cathole?

Just a wonderin' what the reasoning behind that was.


Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Do the best you can! on 01/09/2012 10:44:53 MST Print View


What I usually say is to put the first few wiping "stones" into the hole, and then toss the other ones "out of the system" I try and toss these under a bush.

I am NOT at all worried that this minimal amount of suspect matter will contaminate anything.

THe biggest issue with the cat hole is that it is near impossible in some places to dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep. With or without a trowel, it's hard to accomplish!

So - I simply espouse; Do the best you can!

Mike C!

Scott Bentz
(scottbentz) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
TP on 01/09/2012 12:56:29 MST Print View

Thanks Mike.

My sister asked me what to get my brother for Christmas and I told her to go online, type your name and get a few of your books. He was quite pleased and I now have MY books back.


P. Larson
(reacttocontact) - F
Re: Do the best you can! on 01/27/2012 09:11:47 MST Print View

Mike...would you recommend this book as a companion to Lighten Up or could one get as much info by just purchasing this book? Thanks.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
LIGHTEN UP / ULTRALIGHT TIPS on 01/27/2012 15:11:44 MST Print View

LIGHTEN UP by Don Ladigan is an excellent primmer to ULTRALIGHT TIPS.

They are sort of meant to be purchased together, but they certainly stand alone too.

ULTRALIGHT TIPS is dedicated to more advanced tips and techniques. If you are already a seasoned backpacker with a little bit of lightweight experience under your belt, you might not need LIGHTEN UP.

LIGHTEN UP has a really good chapter on bear camping.

Let me also add that I love Don Ladigan! He was absolutely wonderful to work with, and I consider him a true mentor.

Link .
(annapurna) - MLife
Re: LIGHTEN UP / ULTRALIGHT TIPS on 01/27/2012 16:25:44 MST Print View

you should watch Mike's free instructional videos also

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
The Manifesto on 01/27/2012 17:38:54 MST Print View

Recognize this tip? That's because you've seen it before! Don't worry readers, Mike Clelland is working hard to provide some fresh new tips for the months to come.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Ahh, the top ten, Great Tips! on 01/30/2012 04:58:38 MST Print View

Mike, you really nailed it with the top ten. These should be posted as the UL'ers commandments from a god to his chosen people.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Ahh, the top ten, Great Tips! on 02/01/2012 12:07:57 MST Print View

Left out my favorite :)


Mike, I want to thank you for your efforts to help people enjoy their hiking experience with humor and creativity. Well done!

Jason G
(JasonG) - F

Locale: iceberg lake
tip on 02/09/2012 01:11:57 MST Print View

"Recognize this tip? That's because you've seen it before! Don't worry readers, Mike Clelland is working hard to provide some fresh new tips for the months to come."

lol. i was gunna ask if this is ultralight tip of the month now.. :)

Austin Haidinyak
(AustinJames77) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Great book on 02/10/2012 09:43:57 MST Print View

I love these books, informative and fun! No matter how much I think I know UL, there's always some tips that I hadn't thought of. Thanks for posting these guys!

Jean-Francois Fortier
(jffortier) - MLife

Locale: Québec
Help on 02/13/2012 18:13:52 MST Print View

How can I access previous "tip of the week" ?

Is it me or what ? The information is so hard to
find on BPL.

Please help the search engine is driving me crazy ;)

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: Help on 02/13/2012 19:31:41 MST Print View

> How can I access previous "tip of the week" ?

Buy the book! :)

The webpage that has the tip itself only shows the current tip. There is no archive of what they have shown already though if you go through all gazillion pages of this thread, you'll get a good idea of what was covered.

Michael Stancato
(michael7177) - F
Great Cartoons, who did them? on 02/23/2012 07:00:40 MST Print View

Great Cartoons, did Mike do them?

Here's my more mysterious ultralight criteria:

My criteria goes in this order:
1. Pick the right tool for the job
2. The tool must be dual purpose or used regularly.
3. Pick the lightest possible tool.

Price is not part of the equation because it could adversely affect quality. Resources and money will be saved if all the criteria are met.

Heavier items such as homes and furnishings divided by multiple users would equal something light or dual purpose.

Each step is recursive. Upon considering each step I will then reconsider the previous step. For example:

1. Pick the right tool for the job. I must consider whether the job really needs doing in the first place

2. The tool must be dual purpose or used regularly. Upon picking the the right tool I must consider whether I really need anything at all or can make do with what I already have or borrow to accomplish the task.

3. Pick the lightest possible tool. Lightness emerges from careful engineering combined with end user testing and redesign.