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Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story

How books about or by famous UL walkers, a sewing machine, and the most devoted UL community on the planet got me back on the trail and going light.

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by Mark McLauchlin | 2009-10-20 00:00:00-06

Setting the Scene

I live in Australia. It's the smallest continent, but also the largest, most remote, and most isolated island. To top off all of that, I live in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, which is the most isolated capital city in Australia, and thus, in turn, the world. This creates some unique and interesting challenges.

The move to lightweight for me was more of a necessity rather than a personal goal to see how light I could hike, although my motivation is now changing. My frame and build do not allow for carrying heavy loads comfortably at all, and I figured that as I was out hiking to enjoy myself then I should do just that. More recently I was involved in two car accidents weeks apart and, as a result, have several prolapsed disks from C2 through to C7, which make things a little uncomfortable at times.

Initially I started hiking with the Cubs and then Scouts as a child. Back then, gear consisted of heavy external frame packs that provided no comfort at all with most, if not all of the weight, right on the shoulders. I recall carrying canvas tents, large Trangia stoves, and enough food and lollies to feed a small nation. Then one of two things happened: I lost interest, or being in the Scouts was no longer the cool thing to do. I don't recall which it was, but none the less I gave hiking and backpacking up.

Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story - 1
Memories of Scouting days - this is from a recent group I met whilst out performing track maintenance along the Bibbulmun Track. The group was out for a single night, yet managed to look like they were out for a week. As penance for having been so noisy during the night, I spent some time the following morning educating them on 'Code of the Campsite.' This involves things such as Be considerate and share the shelter; Protect the environment; Be clean - Pack it in, pack it out; Stay cool - Cook safe.

It wasn't until late 2005, when my son was born, that I went down to the local hiking store and bought myself a nice pair of shoes (probably the only item I still use now), a pack, a sleeping bag, a stove, and a few other items I was advised were a must. I prepared myself to reacquaint with the hiking world. Looking back, I have to admit that one of the reasons I wanted to get back into hiking was simply because of the amount of new gear there was to explore (trap number one and the first of many). Another reason was so that I could prepare myself and be comfortable in my abilities to take my son out hiking when he was old enough. That time has now come, Cameron is four years old and enjoys being outside more than he does in. We have yet to go on an overnight hike together, but that is only a matter of time.

My first time back on the trail for a true overnight hike was along the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia to a place known as Mount Cooke. At a total height of around 540 meters (1,772 feet), it's one of the highest peaks along the trail (no altitude sickness there!). This hike was probably the best I have ever been on, and I still reminisce about it now. Not for the actual walk itself, although it was good, but more for the realisation that this stuff was way harder than I ever remembered it being as a youngster. My pack was heavy, and there had to be a better way to do this; surely there was lighter gear out there to make this more enjoyable. The gear list below will give you an idea of what I was carrying. There are probably even more items that I didn't record at the time - you know, that stuff you just have to take with you, like an extra can of isopropane gas, just in case the one cup of water you boil runs the first can dry.

Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story - 2
One heavy pack, over 13 kilos (28.6 pounds). I'm using a shoe cleaning station while out on a four-day hike along the Bibbulmun Track. These stations play a very important part in preventing the spread of Dieback, a destructive disease predominant in the area. Of course, the seat also provided some relief for the day's walk.

Getting a UL Education

Being off the trail for so many years, along with my recent trail experience, meant I needed to spend some time researching lightweight gear and its pitfalls. The most obvious place to start was the internet. It wasn't long before I found a few websites that proved to be excellent resources. The first was a locally run Yahoo group, Aushiker, which connected me with some local hiking enthusiasts. One of the people I met online soon became a very good friend and hiking companion. One of the other people I met was the famous (infamous?) Roger Caffin, who soon put me onto Backpacking Light. His precise words to me were "PS: you need to subscribe to Backpacking Light to keep up with all this UL stuff." I still don't know why I hadn't done my research before I had bought a heap of gear.

I happened to stumble across a Backpacking Light forum post where the topic was focused around a hiker in the United States by the name of Ray Jardine, who was apparently the godfather of lightweight hiking. I just had to know more about this guy, so I bought his book Trail Life and read it cover to cover over a weekend. That fact still amazes me, as until that day I had never read an entire book, I kid you not. I was so amazed by what I learned that I grew ravenous for more about Ray's style. I jumped online, ordered a quilt kit, and put that together with attention to detail like I had never done before. I was so proud my achievement; I had made a quilt and knocked 300 grams off my weight with no real effort. The lightweight world was banging at my door and was also in my head continually. I dreamt about gear (still do, in fact!) and how much lighter it could be. After the Ray Jardine quilt and successful field trips with it, I progressed to a GoLite Ultra20 quilt and removed a further 360 grams from the original weight of my traditional sleeping bag, a Mountain Designs Travelite (1200 gram reduced to 540 grams).

My book collection started to expand, and included Hike Your Own Hike by Francis Tapon, The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert, 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Ludin, and a host of many more, which have provided great inspiration. Research soon brought me a little closer to home, and when I looked at Australians who have motivated me to seek a lighter pack weight, there is the typical high profile thru-hiker or well known personality, but there are also people like the indigenous Aboriginals and bush swagmen of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Aboriginals led a nomadic lifestyle where they walked in search of fertile areas to hunt and gather, living off the land with as little impact to the surrounding areas as possible. This was the original "leave no trace." The Aboriginals had the right idea from the start, which was about 50,000 years ago. They travelled light, generally carrying only what they needed to survive, a kylie (boomerang) and a gamai or spear. They built shelters (mia) out of tree branches, covered them with bark, and bound them together with grasses. When it was time to move on, these were generally left standing for the next tribe that passed through. Bush tucker was collected from the native plants and may have consisted of wild fruits such as figs, bush pear, and appleberries and vegetables such as rainforest spinach and potatoes. Kangaroos, emus, goanna, snake, and fish were common sources of meat and easily caught buy the skillful hunter.

The swagman, on the other hand, was not so much of a hunter and gatherer; he was simply a lone traveller walking from town to town looking for work on the farms. Much like the Aboriginals, swagmen carried only what they needed to survive, but rather than a kylie and gamai, it was a swag and a billy. Swag is an Australian term for a bedroll, and a billy is a pot or can with a wire handle used to boil water or cook food in. There were no tents or other luxury items.

If the Aboriginals and swagmen could do without, I saw no reason I couldn't do the same. Now, I'm not saying I'm going to walk the trails with a spear or just carry a swag, but that mentality makes gear selection a little more careful and planned. I questioned my need to carry extra gas, then wondered if I needed gas at all, or if an open fire would do the job. In those areas where open flame is permissible, I packed accordingly. Those areas with fire bans forced me to consider what else I could bring that was still light in weight. For me, deciding what's achievable in going lightweight is about looking at history, and what our ancestors and past civilizations did, how they lived, how they travelled. It is about knowing my limitations both physically and mentally, being comfortable with what I am carrying and ensuring it really is necessary - and most of all, doing all of this safely.

Manly Men Sew

One of the challenges I faced in my quest to carry light and be a true lightweight hiker, apart from the lack of local resources due to geographical isolation, was funding. How was I going to pay for all this gear? Like most lightweight hikers, I turned to "Make Your Own Gear" or MYOG (at least now I speak the lingo of a lightweight hiker!). Pepsi can stoves were the first item I wanted to master, and boy, did I drink a lot of Pepsi over a short period. The stoves were successful to a point and served their purpose well. Going from an MSR Pocket Rocket to the alcohol style setup was interesting, and it taught me a lot about making things simple, with fewer moving parts to worry about. I later discovered titanium and have since used a Vargo Decagon stove and now more recently an Ultimate Survival Technologies WetFire stove. Continuing on with my newly found skill of MYOG, I went out and bought myself a sewing machine (my wife still ribs me about this), for a whopping $15 from a very good mate with whom I hike on a regular basis. I started with small stuff sacks and progressed to making my son a backpack. I have also made an insulated vest and a bivy based on the Six Moon Designs Meteor.

My first solo attempt at going lightweight backpacking didn't come until March of this year, when I went out to one of my favourite spots, known as Helena Hut, in the Helena National Park. I had just purchased my first lightweight pack, a ULA Relay, second-hand from a forum and still think it's one of the best things I own. I packed my gear for an overnight stay and hit the trailhead with a total weight of 6.5 kilograms (14.3 pounds) from skin out. I even carried my pack on one shoulder, just as Ray Jardine does, to see if it really was as effective as he says, and it was great. I was on my own with a pack the lightest it has ever been, and things were all coming together nicely.

Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story - 3
First solo hike, ULA Relay Pack. Here I am on my first solo hike to a favourite spot known as Helena Hut. My weight from skin out was 6.5 kilograms including food for the night and water. This time of the year, winter clothing is not needed, so I was able to save a few kilos. Water is also not an issue, as there are two large water tanks at the campsite that are fed by the guttering system on the shelter.

Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story - 4
First solo hike with my Ray Jardine quilt. Spending a night in Helena Hut with my newly sewn quilt was a great experience. Here I used a Tyvex groundsheet and my old Therm-a-Rest Prolite 4. The style of the shelters is very similar to that along the AT. My understanding is that during the construction of these shelters, some guidance was received by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, with several visits from the ATC made out to Australia.

As my thirst for lightweight increased, so did the effort I had to go to get hold of things. One the drawbacks of being so isolated is that it takes a few years longer for some things to catch on, and hiking was one of those things. There are still no cottage-type companies running from here, and lightweight gear doesn't enter into any conversations with store sales reps. In fact, they seem to promote carrying more as some kind way to increase the pleasure of walking, though I think it just increases the pleasure of a commission. I recall being in a store one day listening to the rep selling a couple everything they needed and didn't need for a thru hike they were embarking on. I had to really bite my tongue when they were sold a six-egg holder to go with an open fire bread toaster. Something tells me that they may have eaten well, but were probably miserable on the trail.

Lightweight Evangelism

One of the things that has kept my motivation going and helped me move towards an even lighter pack weight has been the generosity and helpfulness of the hiking community. I don't know that I would be where I am now in achieving my goal of a 6-kilo pack had it not been for these people. Perhaps one of the best experiences came when I posted a note about wanting to buy a down jacket on the Backpacking Light forums. Shortly thereafter, I received an email letting me know there was one available, like new, and all I had to do was pay postage. How could I pass that up? I ended up with a Marmot down jacket that weighs 690 grams (24.4 oz).

Along the way, I've learned a few lessons:

  • Don't buy something because it's shiny.
  • Research and learn from others (they have been there and done it before).
  • Get lots of advice, but only use the parts you want to, what feels right to you.
  • Have fun (probably the most important tip I got!).

What I'm focused on now is going even lighter, hiking smarter and safer, refining my gear list to something that I am comfortable with, and educating others met on the trail that there is a better way to do things. Bush tucker and survival skills are also something that I will be concentrating on in the coming months. I now volunteer myself to the Bibbulmun Track Foundation for trail maintenance and want to give something back to a place that has given me so much enjoyment.

Continuing my UL journey into my everyday life off the trail is helping me to better appreciate the non-materialistic things in my life. As someone once told me, "The best things in life are not things".

Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story - 5
Me and Andrew, Gringer Creek to Canning, Bibbulmun Track Western Australia. Photo taken at the trailhead close to Gringer Creek campsite before starting an ambitious four-day hike covering over 100 kilometres (62 miles) of the most undulating part of the track. It was during this hike that the lightweight style showed its true value, and it was STILL very tough going.

Gear List
  Pre-Lightweight     Post-Lightweight    
Sleeping   Weight (g) Weight (oz)   Weight (g) Weight (oz)
  MD Travelite 500 Sleeping Bag 1,200 42.36 GoLite Ultra20 Quilt 540 19.06
  Therm-a-Rest ProLite 4 Mat 736 25.98 Therm-a-Rest NeoAir 410 14.47
  Therm-a-Rest Pillow 264 9.32 Removed 0 0.00
  Tarptent Double Rainbow 1,274 44.97 Tarptent Contrail 690 24.36
  Tyvek Groundsheet 198 6.99 Tyvek Groundsheet 198 6.99
Total   3,672 129.62   1,838 64.88
  Gas 234 8.26 Esbit Tabs 4 0.14
  MSR Titan Kettle 128 4.52 Heineken Pot 30 1.06
  MSR Pocket Rocket 86 3.04 Esbit Titanium Wing Stove 13 0.46
  Orikaso Bowl 32 1.13 Orikaso Bowl 32 1.13
  Light My Fire Knife/Spoon Set 10 0.35 Light My Fire Knife/Spoon Set 10 0.35
  Plastic Cup 58 2.05 Plastic Cup 58 2.05
Total   548 19.34   147 5.19
Clothing Worn            
  Sea to Summit Quagmire Gaiters 342 12.07 Sea to Summit Tumbleweed Gaiters 80 2.82
  Hat 84 2.97 Hat 84 2.97
  Hiking Shoes 984 34.74 Hiking Shoes 984 34.74
  Jumper 700 24.71 Marmot Down Jacket 691 24.39
  Long Pants 624 22.03 Long Pants 320 11.30
Total   2,734 96.51   2,159 76.21
Clothing Carried            
  Beanie 56 1.98 Beanie 56 1.98
  Gore-Tex Rain Coat 240 8.47 Gore-Tex Rain Coat 240 8.47
  Socks Bridgedale(second day) 96 3.39 Socks DeFeet (second day) 48 1.69
  Shirt (second day) 251 8.86 Shirt (second day) 251 8.86
  Thermals Top and Bottom (sleeping) 310 10.94 Thermals Top and Bottom (sleeping) 310 10.94
  Thongs 290 10.24 Removed 0 0.00
Total   1,243 43.88   905 31.95
  1.5L Water Bladder (full) 1,614 56.97 1.5L water bladder (full) 1,614 56.97
  Nalgene Large (full 1L) 1,120 39.54 Water Container (full 1L) 1,025 36.18
  Nalgene Small 94 3.32 Removed 0 0.00
  Osprey Aether 60L Pack 1,360 48.01 ULA Relay Pack 520 18.36
  First Aid Kit 386 13.63 Mini First Aid Kit 148 5.22
  Garmix eTrex GPS 200 7.06 Garmix eTrex GPS 200 7.06
  Sea to Summit Silnylon Pack Cover 90 3.18 Sea to Summit Silnylon Pack Cover 90 3.18
  Petzl Tikka Plus Headlamp 76 2.68 Petzl eLite 46 1.62
  Toilet Paper 50 1.77 Toilet Paper 50 1.77
  Tealights x 3 52 1.84 Removed 0 0.00
  Toothbrush 4 0.14 Toothbrush 4 0.14
  Toothpaste 8 0.28 Toothpaste 8 0.28
  Batteries x 2 AA 48 1.69 Batteries x 2 CR2032 6 0.21
  Suncream 60 2.12 Suncream - Smaller Container 20 0.71
  3G Mobile Phone 92 3.25 3G Mobile Phone 92 3.25
Total   5,254 185.47   3,823 134.95
  Breakfast x 1 - Cereal 100 3.53 Breakfast x 1 - Cereal 100 3.53
  Lunch x 1 200 7.06 Lunch x 1 200 7.06
  Dinner x 1 - Store Bought Dehydrated 320 11.30 Dinner x 1 - Home Made Dehydrated 126 4.45
  Coffee or Tea Bags 8 0.28 Coffee or Tea Bags 8 0.28
Total   628 22.17   434 15.32
From Skin Out   14,079 496.99   9,306 328.50
    kilos lbs   kilos lbs
    14.1 31.06   9.3 20.53


"Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story," by Mark McLauchlin. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-10-20 00:00:00-06.


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Transitional Hiker - An Australian Story
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Gordon Bedford
(gbedford) - MLife

Locale: Victoria, Australia
Transitional Hiker on 10/24/2009 15:02:14 MDT Print View

My apologies are to Dan for calling him Dean.

Thanks for the information. I live in Victoria also. Haven't gotaround to inputing any information into the side column of the pages.

I enjoyed the article Mark.


Pamela Wyant
(RiverRunner) - F - M
RE: An Australian Story on 10/26/2009 12:43:03 MDT Print View

Well written story Mark. I enjoyed reading it.


Dan Baker
(heeler) - MLife

Locale: Victoria, Australia
Gordon... on 10/30/2009 05:40:08 MDT Print View

Gordon, where abouts are you in Victoria? I am guessing around the Grampians? I am in Geelong.


Gordon Bedford
(gbedford) - MLife

Locale: Victoria, Australia
A reply to Dan on 11/02/2009 13:48:36 MST Print View

Guess what Dan I live in Warragul but I am a Geelong Footy Club fan.

Just an ageing walker who is lightening his gear weight.


Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
UL conversion on 11/04/2009 09:28:29 MST Print View

It's fun to hear ultralight conversion stories and as others said, even more interesting to hear about adapting to different climates.

The down jacket was a surprise. I would need to be in sub-freezing conditions to wear that jacket while walking! Everyone's needs vary and I'm carrying too much of my own "insulation" as it is. I do wonder of more light layers would be more adaptable than the one thick one. That allows tuning to seasonal and exertion variations and for sleeping as well.

I'm all for one extra pair of socks. They can aid sleeping warmth and be swapped a for dirty/wet pair that can be washed and hung on your pack to dry underway. I would agree that they are a disposable option on an overnight trip. Likewise taking an extra shirt.

Argo Sane
(indicus) - F

Locale: Blue Mountains, Australia
Any other Aussies feel we are all far behind? on 11/12/2009 03:36:39 MST Print View

Nice tale Mark, how well I know the feeling of "I used to be able to..." and the loong climb back to competence let alone excellence...

Edited by indicus on 11/12/2009 03:45:10 MST.

Michael Prouting
(AussieBushwalker) - F

Locale: Macarthur, NSW, Australia
Transitioning on 11/19/2009 19:44:04 MST Print View

Hi all. I'm a long time forum lurker, first time poster.

Just wanted to say thanks to Mark for writing such a good article from an aussie perspective.

After joining a bushwalking club I was lucky enough to befriend a fellow walker who had discovered the UL world some time ago, on many a walk as we were discussing different pieces of equipment he would invariably say "too heavy". At first I thought he was nuts and did not pay much attention to his opinions. Around the same time I found the now legendary "The Australian Bushwalking FAQ". After several (yes, several) reads of the FAQ I started to see that it was possible to enjoy walking without carrying a truck load of heavy gear. Since then I have been doing lots of research on the web at sites like this one, I've had some good long chats with my UL walking buddy including an overnighter where he turned up with a frameless Golite pack and tarp shelter (without the nest part and it was summer).

Consequently I have started to obtain UL gear and have also started down the MYOG path as well (though I need to learn to sew) including quite a collection of pepsi stoves (how easy and fun are these to make).

I'd still call myself transitional but I am getting there.

Enough of my rambling on.


Mark McLauchlin
(markmclauchlin) - MLife

Locale: Western Australia
Re: Transitioning on 11/19/2009 20:10:07 MST Print View

Thanks for the comments Michael,

Enjoy your quest for lightness.


Mick Beckers
(mickos_b) - MLife
Going light on 02/07/2012 02:21:53 MST Print View

Thanks Mark.

Inspiring read. I hope to get my kit down to something like yours.