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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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Jeremy Platt
(jeremy089786) - F

Locale: Sydney
Shoes on elbows on 05/20/2011 01:03:43 MDT Print View

Hey Mike,

Nice tip about using your shoes as elbow rests. I am going to try that next summer with my inertia x-frame. It is really comfy but very thin and I have been wondering how to fatten it out.

Keep the good work up!

Devin Montgomery
(dsmontgomery) - MLife

Locale: one snowball away from big trouble
Re: Shoes on elbows on 05/20/2011 07:13:35 MDT Print View

Mike - the illustrations are obviously good looking, logically organized but relaxed and just... lightweight. I think that's the word I've been looking for. No extra details or text. Very fitting to the subject matter.

The real surprise: shoes under the elbows. Never would have thought of that. I'll have to give it a try. :)

Thanks for these.

Bradford Childs
(Ford22) - F
Hip pad on 05/20/2011 11:59:10 MDT Print View

I'm a side sleeper and my hip bone was digging through my Ridgerest foam pad on the CT so I cut a piece of foam (~8"x12") for my hip. Helped tremendously, but I'll have to try the lighter donut shape! I'm not sure I could stay put on such a small piece but who knows.

+1 on loose shoes. Mine are maybe a little too loose (sound like flip-flops at times) but haven't had a blister in years and it's so nice to not untie your shoes every time there's a little rock in there. Just pop em off and keep walking.

(cuzzettj) - MLife

Locale: NorCal - South Bay
Hip Pad... on 05/20/2011 12:15:46 MDT Print View

You know, I will try the hip pad and just stuff one at my hip in the inside of my pants... <---I had to write that a few times... it kept coming out wrong! Then I will switch it when I need to. Shouldn't be to hard. Then again at .2oz, maybe I should have two... Nah, what am I thinking!

Mike - You are fantastic. I would love to have these drawings printed up in poster size for teaching. Talk about getting the point across perfectly! Thank you!!!

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Side sleepers? on 05/20/2011 14:22:35 MDT Print View

So Mike, how about a similar set of tips and drawings for UL side sleepers?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Shoes on elbows on 05/20/2011 18:27:59 MDT Print View

I can see a problem with some of the recommendations. They will work quite well under benign conditions for some people, but there are many cases where they won't.

Shoes under elbows: and if the shoes are soaking wet and muddy? Happens to us, and happens in some parts of America too.

Side sleepers: some people can't sleep on their backs. They may have snoring problems, they may have spinal problems, they may have breathing problems, ...

Moral: what works for one person may not work for others. First requirement is to think!


Jeremy Platt
(jeremy089786) - F

Locale: Sydney
soaking shoes on 05/22/2011 16:40:39 MDT Print View

Hi Roger,

I was thinking exactly that yesterday, most of the time my shoes are wet/muddy and I am also a side/front sleeper. I am going to try putting them in glad bags (if they are not too wet) to keep the muck off of the mat/ sleeping bag. As for front sleeping, I still really need an inflatable.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/24/2011 18:26:41 MDT Print View

I suspect that when Mike hits his late 60's/early 70's, he will also be in agony if he tries to sleep on no more than a CCF pad and rubber donut. With nice, thick, cushiony insulated air pads getting lighter and lighter, there isn't a lot of weight difference between what he takes and what I take. Not enough to be worth a sleepless night, anyway!

I'm gonna try his pillow idea, though!

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

Ziplock on 05/24/2011 23:54:01 MDT Print View

Interesting idea with the ziplock baggies. It seems like you could just nix the pillow case though and use the stuff sack for your shelter instead since that's always just laying around when the shelter is pitched. 7 zip lock baggies can't weigh much.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
pad and pillow on 05/25/2011 10:22:41 MDT Print View

Reply To Mary D:
I do take an inflatable pad! It's a BPL torso length pad, with 5mm evazote glued to it so I get 100% padding below me. I will occasionally use just a thin closed-cell foam pad, but I much refer the inflatable version.

See this article:

I cut off the TYVEC ground cloth thing, I found it unnecessary after a few nights on it.

- and -

Reply to DAN:
I don't carry a stuff sack for my shelter, and I'm presently using the mesh grapefruit bag as my pillow stuff sack.

And - I gotta say, I am suer proud of the ziploc pillow concept. It is close to perfection!

Lee Fields
Pillow cover on 05/25/2011 11:39:28 MDT Print View

I wear a Buff during the day and slide it over my clothes bag at night for a pillow case. As a side sleeper, I could never go for a plastic pillow cover.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Pillow cover on 05/25/2011 12:16:30 MDT Print View

Wearing the buff as a balaclava, it wouldn't matter if you side slept on plastic. You always would have buff against your skin.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
pillow on 05/25/2011 12:23:16 MDT Print View

My reply to John & Lee:

These tips all come from a book, and the book is devoted to Ultralight skills. I advocate wearing all your layers to sleep as insulation. That said, there isn't any extra gear (like a clothes bag) left when it's time to sleep. So, the pillow becomes an issue.

I position my plastic mesh bag UNDER my - and I'm wearing a hood and hat, so my head would never touch the pillow directly.

If I carried a BUFF, I would wear it to bed and take advantage of that insulation.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: pillow on 05/26/2011 06:15:53 MDT Print View

After reading your book, I had to try the pillow idea. I am usually against taking so many unused plastic bags on a hiking trip. But, I figured I would give it a try. It was GREAT!
Thanks, Mike!

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
pillow R & D on 05/26/2011 08:39:34 MDT Print View

Reply to James:

Yeah - this pillow tip is really is great!

As silly as this might sound, I was SO proud of myself when I finally figured this one out.

I've used the same 7 bags since last summer. So, they get used over and over, and it works perfectly.

As I was playing R&D technician, I tried about 9 bags and a bigger stuff sack, that was GLORIOUS! But, I didn't need the larger size, so I took it down to 7 with a smaller stuff sack. Any fewer than 7 and I found it was too small (for me).

I haven't come up with anything lighter or more comfortable - or cheaper!

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: pillow R & D on 05/26/2011 09:59:27 MDT Print View

Yup. A really good idea. I was using 4 baggies in a small stuff sack from my night cloths and suplimented with my muddy pants. Thanks Mike, one of those tips that costs next to nothing, maybe an ounce in weight for the baggies and is mostly a matter of technique. I loved it... Far better than shoes! (Bag is turned inside out, of course.)

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
RE: "Ultralight Tip of the Week" on 05/26/2011 12:49:33 MDT Print View

Hey Mike,

Just wanted to chime in and let you know how much I enjoy reading your tips each week. I'll be ordering your book for sure. The cartoons are great too. I can't wait to try your pillow idea.

Nate Davis
(Knaight) - F

Locale: Western Massachusetts
Pillow on 05/26/2011 18:40:36 MDT Print View

Neat idea with the pillow. Seems like a bit of a hassle to set up, but maybe that's just because I haven't tried it.

I usually do one of the following, depending on what I have with me and what's dry:

-Ball up my pack.
-Partially inflate an empty 1 liter Platypus bottle (it's okay if there's a bit of water in there)
-Use a shoe

All of these have worked fine for me, with no weight penalty or extra hassle since I already have the items with me. Then again, I sleep easily and heavily, so I've got that working in my favor.

The ziploc idea admittedly sounds more comfortable. ;)

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Poof - Zip - Stuff (repeat times 7) easy! on 05/26/2011 19:18:42 MDT Print View


It's easier to set up than you might think. Poof - Zip - Stuff (repeat times 7) easy!

I've used my shoes PLENTY! They are pretty good, but imperfect.

I once filled my backpack with pine-cones. THey were crunchy and all dry. I was fortunate to bed down right next to a tree that literally had then piled up under the tree. It was magical!

Mike C!

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Poof - Zip - Stuff (repeat times 7) easy! on 05/27/2011 10:52:24 MDT Print View

>> It was magical!

lol - i can hear robert duvall saying: i love the smell of crunchy pine cones in the morning


Really am enjoying your book. Excellent!