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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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Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
A Better Pillow!! on 05/27/2011 12:24:50 MDT Print View

I can go you one better than ziplock baggies!

BPL used to offer inflatable pillows used by EMTs. About 4 years ago I found a website that offered them in bulk and a bunch of us BPL members bought a box of them and shared them out at cost. They come in a box of 50 for $25 and if partially inflated are supremely comfortable. I kept 5 and I have used one for over 24 nights. They have a flocked cottony surface. I have had to replace the inflator straw several times because I have either lost it or it has bent and leaked air. Simple to replace with any drinking straw. They weigh a hefty .20oz!! I don't use mine uncovered (hence the reason it has lasted so long and isn't a dirt mess). I use the flocked pillow case cover that you ucan get at REI for about $9. Adds a small bit of weight but...

Here is the site:

The 14 inch size is perfect. The larger 19 inch is just too big and your head rolls around on it.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
PILLOW (multiple zip-lock baggies) on 05/27/2011 12:38:50 MDT Print View

Reply to Mitchell:

Iv'e used these white inflatable pillow that you recommend. I thought these were pretty good, but I found they were small, and my head would sort of roll off. The only version that worked for me was the DUAL-CHAMBER version, but these are no longer available on the BPL site.

The version (with the multiple zip-lock baggies) is a smidge heavier but (for me anyway) much MORE comfortable!

Link .
(annapurna) - MLife
Re: A Better Pillow!! on 05/27/2011 12:39:56 MDT Print View

BPL has them in stock now not the dual chambered ones

Edited by annapurna on 05/27/2011 12:41:22 MDT.

Al Nichols
(everready) - F

Locale: Sh!^^% Ohio
I use these....... on 05/27/2011 12:47:42 MDT Print View

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: I use these....... on 05/27/2011 20:04:44 MDT Print View

just hoping i don't dream about a Poop-in-a-ziploc pillow tonight

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
RE: "Ultralight Tip of the Week" on 05/28/2011 00:50:19 MDT Print View

LOL @ George

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
Ziplock Pillows on 05/31/2011 10:32:51 MDT Print View

Tried this out down on the eastside of the Sierras this past week. Great tip! Thanks Mike.

Al Nichols
(everready) - F

Locale: Sh!^^% Ohio
George, I don't get it.......... on 05/31/2011 11:06:59 MDT Print View

"just hoping i don't dream about a Poop-in-a-ziploc pillow tonight"


Aaron Benson
(AaronMB) - F

Locale: Central Valley California
re: George I don't get it. on 05/31/2011 11:26:30 MDT Print View

Al, check out WAG Bags... You might be sorry you asked though! ;)

Edited by AaronMB on 05/31/2011 11:27:26 MDT.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Ultralight Tip of the Week on 05/31/2011 15:45:51 MDT Print View

You might want to check out the Kooka Bay inflatable pillow at only 1.3 oz.
It's lighter than Mike's!

Daniel Allen
(Dan_Quixote) - F

Locale: below the mountains (AK)
Aqua Mira on 06/02/2011 19:17:57 MDT Print View

This latest tip is awesome! I think it'll save me a lot of time and hassle in my backpacking as I grab water from beaver ponds and streams in the bottom of valleys.

my favorite part: prepare the mixture at the beginning of the day and have only the one bottle to worry about while hiking. Bril!


Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Katadyn Chlorine Dioxide tabs on 06/02/2011 19:47:16 MDT Print View

Good idea for Aqua Mira users Mike!

I prefer the ease of use and strength of Katadyn chlorine dioxide tabs over Aqua Mira for my hydration bladder.

BTW, if I need faster tablet purification I crush them in my spoon before adding them to the hydration bladder.

For quick purification for my energy drink bike bottle I use a SteriPen Adventurer.

Edited by Danepacker on 06/02/2011 19:50:22 MDT.

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: Aqua Mira on 06/02/2011 20:55:31 MDT Print View

Pre-mix AM at your own risk.

Related thread.
"The reason that the instructions call for a reaction wait time of 5 minutes is so that the mixture can be added to the water at the peak of ClO2 production. If a person adds the mixture too early or late, the final concentration of ClO2 in the water can be significantly less than the required 4ppm."

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Reply to Michael Ray: on 06/02/2011 21:31:02 MDT Print View

Reply to Michael Ray:

Yes, I agree, one should use this system with a bit of your own personal insights.

The "MIX" has a time of effectiveness that has a lot of variables. It is my understanding that the YELLOW color is an indication that the MIX is effective. The system of the small MIX bottle has long been used by ultra-light hikers.

The safest way to use this system is to be careful with the MIX (avoid heat and light) and to use the mix soon after creating.

Also - I feel am cautious about the water source. I try to get my drinking water from the cleanest source i can.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Reply to Michael Ray: on 06/03/2011 06:01:29 MDT Print View

"The "MIX" has a time of effectiveness that has a lot of variables. It is my understanding that the YELLOW color is an indication that the MIX is effective. The system of the small MIX bottle has long been used by ultra-light hikers."

Pre-mixing is generally OK. If you have any immunity, a good mix will likely work. To be 99.9% sure, just double the dosage. All of this is pretty good advise. But, some people will take it as gospel and think they are the words of absolute. Not true. Even following the instructions somone will likely get sick...that is the nature of statistics. 99.999% still means that 1 in 100000 will get sick with Gardia or Crypto. And, AquaMira does NOT work that well against tapeworms. It does, but slowly and it only takes one egg, not 6-7 cysts, to aquire the disease.

As with a LOT of UL techniques, it takes a knowledge of what you are doing and the terrain you are doing it in to be safe. From warmth, shelter, walking, water and all requires more from an ultralight camper than the average car camper.

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
reply to James on 06/04/2011 19:30:24 MDT Print View

James wrote:
"As with a LOT of UL techniques, it takes a knowledge of what you are doing and the terrain you are doing it in to be safe. From warmth, shelter, walking, water and all requires more from an ultralight camper than the average car camper.


Mike C's reply:
Yes - I agree completely. But, that extra knowledge isn't really all *that* much. I feel it takes just a little bit of extra dedication to solve most of the key differences.

This tip on AQUAMIRA was a tricky one for me to write and share in a way that I feel is fair to the user. If you read the text, i am very clear that this change from the directions involves a high level of personal responsibility. I chose my words carefully.

I'll also say it again. I myself (yes me) choose my water sources VERY carefully. And for the most part, I travel and camp in places with VERY clean water. When I can I don't treat my water at all. I feel that this is connected to the way I use aquamira.

I highly recommend that everyone READ the article below:

Sipping the Waters: Techniques for Selecting Untreated Backcountry Water for Drinking
by Michael von Gortler, MD

This excellent essay helped me a lot to define when and how I choose my water. I love NOT treating my water at all, and this is a great starting point. In my book I share my own "checklist" of when and how to drink un-treated water. I was inspired by this article by Dr. von Gorter.

Rodney Mruk

Locale: Northeast Oregon
Ultralight Backpacking on 06/05/2011 18:21:13 MDT Print View


I just finished reading your ultralight tips book. I must say it is the best how-to book on backpacking I have ever read and I've read most of them. Thank you for your work and your love to share with others.

By the way, I read your book on my Kindle. For 10 ounces I can bring literally hundreds and hundreds of good books on the trail with a battery that lasts 30 days!


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: reply to James on 06/06/2011 06:15:11 MDT Print View

"But, that extra knowledge isn't really all *that* much. I feel it takes just a little bit of extra dedication to solve most of the key differences."
Ha, ha...of course. I agree it isn't *that* much. You really enjoy being out there, striving to keep things light and still be comfy, as do I. You are really interested in all that stuff. You even wrote a book (and a good one I will add) on the subject. I tend to think you might be minimizing the effect your book will have on so many other campers, that is to say on lightweight, SUL, XSUL backpackers. As an author, you know that choosing your words can carry a big impact on a reader. You choose your words very well!

I will be bringing your book, Don's book and several others up to the Cedarlands BS Camp this summer. These are for the mostly younger scouts with a thirst for hiking, generally. But, I worry that they may take things a bit too literaly, without thought.

Unfortunatly, or maybe fortunatly, there is very limited access to the internet and phone services for the scouts. While I have read Dr. von Gorter's artical, I do not totally agree with him in spots and he has clearly spent several years hiking at least one area to develope his writing. My concern, to reiterate, is that one of the scouts will pick up on it and decide this is "How to do it" with no real thinking ... something they will have little practice with doing ... both the thinking part and the selection of a good water source.

Anyway, don't let my poor words disrupt your meanings...just keep them coming!

Wesley Witt

Locale: Northwest
Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/06/2011 08:54:17 MDT Print View

Where did you buy the black mini dropper bottle?

Ben Smith
(goosefeet) - MLife

Locale: Georgia
Re: Re: Ultralight Tip of the Week on 06/06/2011 09:14:02 MDT Print View

You can get them at US Plastics.