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Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet

How can lightweight backpacking translate and relate to financial management? Doesn't all that lightweight loot cost money?

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by Brad Groves | 2009-08-25 00:00:00-06

Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet


In learning to lighten my pack, I've also learned to better manage my finances. That might sound like a strange statement to make - generally speaking, lowering your base pack weight is associated with buying lighter gear. What I've learned, though, is to do more with less, and to buy only those things that will make a real difference to my base weight or in terms of practical use. I've learned to do more research before making purchases. I've learned that sometimes the best approach is to make something yourself - and yet, sometimes it makes more sense to pay someone else for their products. Sometimes it makes the most sense to make a sizable investment, and sometimes making that investment means saving up some money and not having the immediate gratification we seem to enjoy so much.

Pack Lighter, Pack Less

The most dramatic changes in lowering my base pack weight came from taking less stuff. It seems obvious enough... fewer things means less weight, just as fewer expenditures means less debt or less financial (instead of physical) strain. But getting to the point where I could leave things out of my pack meant wrapping my head around the concept of needs versus want. I found myself doing a cost-benefit analysis of the things that traditionally appear on my gear list: "I really like that jacket, but is it worth the extra twelve ounces it adds to my system? I mean, it's nice to have, but the down vest is plenty warm." I was surprised not only by how little I needed, but by how little I missed once I got rid of it. And frankly, I was surprised by how unencumbered I felt by having fewer, more functional things on my back.

We all have different ideas about how to approach ultralight gear lists: how to budget the ounces and pounds we carry. We each prioritize categories differently. There are some things we're just not willing or able to do without. If you're unwilling to compromise or sacrifice in one area, though, you'll likely have to make adjustments somewhere else to get to your target base weight. Ultralight backpacking, I'd argue, is ultimately about balance - balancing your budget of pounds and ounces.

If you wanted to design a house, at some point you'd have to adjust a sliding scale to reflect your needs and desires. Given a fixed budget, you can have a tiny house with incredible build quality and craftsmanship, or you can have a bigger house with lower-quality finishing. Designing the house means determining what you're passionate about and what will suit your needs. Designing a low base pack weight requires the same sort of approach.

For example, I'm a side sleeper with a history of back and shoulder problems. There is no way you'll find me on a thin closed-cell foam pad. I carry a thick self-inflator or a plush insulated air mattress instead. My sleeping pad weighs about two pounds versus the three-ounce micro-pads that some die-hards carry. Because I carry a heavier sleeping pad, I try to compensate for the "extra" weight by cutting weight somewhere else. I've been using a nineteen-ounce sleeping bag, for example, and just designed and made a fourteen-ounce sleeping bag. By comparison, many people carry sleeping bags that weigh twenty-eight or so ounces.

Making "Light" Affordable

Perhaps most importantly, ultralight backpacking has led me to take painstaking measurements and considerations for everything in my pack weight budget. I had to relearn, as well as reframe, my concept of "light," much as the process has taught me to re-evaluate my fiscal concept of "affordable." With the economy right now, the timing of my ultralight rebirth couldn't have been better.

Perhaps the best illustration of my new found philosophy is my examination of the fire-starting items I've always packed. Lighters are tiny; they have essentially no mass. Matches are wispy little dried twigs. Having the ability to start fire can be vitally important. So traditionally I've carried a lighter in my pocket, one in my stove kit, one in my survival kit, and another one stashed somewhere in the bowels of my pack. I would also have two or three lightweight plastic bottles stuffed with matches and a striker pad. Once I got serious about lowering my base weight I bought a digital scale and started weighing every single item that could end up in my pack. Each lighter, I found, weighed about 0.75 ounces - next to nothing! Each filled match safe weighed only about an ounce. Again, the weight seems inconsequential. But then, I tallied up the total weight of my firestarters: four lighters at 0.75 ounce equalled 3 ounces. Three match safes at an ounce each weighed 3 ounces. I had 6 ounces of firestarting stuff in my pack - over a third of a pound! I grimaced at the thought of the flint and steel still stashed in my possibles bag.

Discovering that I had about half a pound (once I added the flint and steel) of firestarting stuff in my pack was... profound. It was a moment of clarity that has stayed with me. It led to a paradigm shift in my worldview: even teeny tiny things add up to be very significant.

Happiness is...

Since then, I've become a bit obsessed about weight. I know how much most of my gear (and much of the gear I've considered buying) weighs to the tenth, if not hundredth, of an ounce. Not because I want the absolute lowest possible pack weight, but because I want the lowest possible pack weight that keeps me happy. I now take just enough clothing to keep me warm, dry, and comfy without having a number of extra layering options. I no longer have enough spare clothing to make a decent pillow, so I'm playing with the most flexible options to add a few usable ounces to the pack. (I have a down pillow that weighs 4.5 ounces; when I realized that the 3.5 ounces of down in it was the same amount of down insulating my vest, I ditched the pillow as a possibility. I just made a Climashield vest that weighs 3 ounces total; it should be just enough for my new "pillow," too.

The rest of my life has come under closer inspection since I started thinking about my gear list in a more cognizant way. Money started to make more sense to me, became more tangible. The scale of my life came into better focus. In the grander scheme of things, five bucks for a sandwich at lunch isn't much. And the buck and a quarter for my once or twice daily coffee refill isn't significant - barely registers on the financial scale. And my afternoon snack of a buck or two is really pretty cheap. And if I spend another buck or two on a drink later in the day, well, it's only a buck or two... right? My new-found ultralight perspective helped me realize that, hey, in my life, those inconsequential food purchases added up to ten or twelve dollars every day. Working four days a week, I was realistically spending about fifty dollars each week, two hundred dollars a month, two thousand four hundred dollars a year on "cheap" filler food.

If I were making $100,000 a year, maybe two hundred dollars a month wouldn't be all that much. What I've come to realize, though, is that I don't earn that kind of money. I have been living on the wrong scale. I hadn't been living in reality. I hadn't been paying attention to how quickly all those little things add up and was nickel and diming my budget to pieces. I've learned to live with a scale more appropriate to my budget - and last month, I had an extra hundred and twenty dollars in the bank and two pounds less in my pack.


"Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet," by Brad Groves. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-08-25 00:00:00-06.


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Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet on 08/25/2009 14:37:10 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet

Brad is out hiking for the next week or two, so his replies to any comments will be a bit delayed.

Edited by addiebedford on 08/25/2009 14:40:19 MDT.

Andy Berner
(Berner9) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet on 08/25/2009 16:53:20 MDT Print View

Good article.

This fits my life right now in this exact same sense. I'm new to the entire BPL. The past two weeks I have spent a ridiculous amount of time on this website. I have made excel spreed sheets with all the gear that I plan to purchase. Which all I have left is to get a shelter, pack, and bag/quilt.

I to have came to realize how much I do spend on crap food at work(even though its mostly healthy food). I have began bring lunches and snacks to save money.

Now I just need to lose the idea of bringing a BPL esbit stove and a pot to work to make my lunch.

Jay Wilkerson
(Creachen) - MLife

Locale: East Bay
UL Economics of scale: Budgeting for your pack & Wallet on 08/25/2009 18:23:33 MDT Print View

Great article Brad, Ever since I read Ray Jardines "Beyond Backpacking" in the late 90'S and discovered this website I scrutinize everything I purchase (How does it fit into my system?)..Less is More-No Doubt!!!


John Whynot

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: UL Economics of scale: Budgeting for your pack & Wallet on 08/25/2009 18:36:23 MDT Print View

>>If I were making $100,000 a year, maybe two hundred dollars a month wouldn't be all that much.

No, it's still a chunk of dough. When you stop thinking critically about your budget (pack contents or money), you soon find yourself over budget...

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet on 08/25/2009 18:49:31 MDT Print View

Good relationship between ultralight and budgeting.

It takes a well-disciplined approach to become successful at ultralight backpacking. Deciding on the gear you will take on a trip requires considerable time planning, researching and acquiring. Eventually the process forces you to be brave and go for it. You have to trust your homework.

The same strategy applies to your personal finances. You get money through gifts (I wish) and earnings. Then you save it or spend it. Just like accumulating ounces into unnecessary pounds - or reducing pounds by eliminating ounces - credit card buys versus savings buys can significantly change your financial burden. Careless spending beyond your means will break your back!

It's ironic that credit cards are so ultralight yet produce such heavy loads. Cut them up. Then ounce by ounce purge the balances to nothingness. Don't go into debt to lighten your pack because you'll have to carry the debt a long time.

Mark McLauchlin
(markmclauchlin) - MLife

Locale: Western Australia
Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet on 08/26/2009 08:12:30 MDT Print View

Nice article,

As with most other comments I have found myself at a point where I am definately checking things out more thoroughly before I purchase.

I am also not just looking at the many rows of gear in the hiking stores and thinking about what I can buy just because I can. I now look and think "why would I want to carry that with me", saves me a few bucks too!

I have also started to sell or trade some of the gear I no longer need as it doesn't fit in with my UL quest.

Thanks again, good read

Lucas Osborne
(LukeO) - F

Locale: Big Sky Country
budgeting on 08/26/2009 09:01:44 MDT Print View

Nice Brad!
Your ideas on pack and wallet budgeting make a lot of sense. I'm a chronic over packer, but luckily my wife is gets down to the bare bones. She's not satisfied unless if at the end of a trip the food bag is empty and there's nary a snack to get me out of the woods!

In budgeting to buy those spendy pack-rafts we placed a jar on the kitchen counter and called it "my packraft fund." Every time we would have spent $3 on a cup of coffee or anything else we didn't need, we instead dropped the cash in the jar. I even had friends dropping in change. After a long Alaskan winter when we went to Sherri Tingy's place to buy the raft and I emptied my jar and found that I had a good $400+ in there!

John Davis
(billybooster) - F

Locale: So Cal
RE: Bank vs Backpack on 08/26/2009 09:05:55 MDT Print View

It's often said commons sense is not so common. Before today's economic 'issues' I met some folks who didn't earn as much as me (this isn't about me, it's about on). They didnt have as shiny a car as me, or live in the same neigborhood as me.

But they made things! They repaired not tossed things. They improvised and adapted their existing 'wares' to suit their new needs. They taught me alot - more than I can ever describe.

I now am thrifty! I bulk make burritos and freeze them and they're delicious, I dont pay the 40cents that the gas station wants for using the credit/debit card, I do use the coupons that adorn my mailbox and now I even save up my tin cans for recycling refunds.

Like my backpacking - that started off as an ebay search for a giant two burner coleman stove and ended up trying to make soda stoves - I have evolved through learning and being educated.

This article is yet another one of those stories that highlight, identify and PROVE, that doing the right thing, applying common sense and LEARNING from others is the key to a good balance - both in the bank and on your back! Well done!

Elliott Wolin
(ewolin) - MLife

Locale: Hampton Roads, Virginia
Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & WalletAre: on 08/26/2009 09:23:44 MDT Print View

Same for me as Mark. Once upon a time I drooled over all that equipment at REI or wherever. Now I too think: "Why would I bother carrying weighs a ton and it's mostly useless or redundant."

While taking a break on the porch of a hut in the White Mountains a young teenager hoisted his pack and left, but one flip-flop fell out of his pack. I picked it up and called him back. It must have weighed almost a pound by itself, I couldn't believe it.

How they must suffer, those traditional backpackers who carry all that needless weight. And to think I used to be one of them!

I've become a lightweight evangelist on the trail, much to the chagrin of my kids. On my trip to the ADK's this summer it was hopeless, though, so many ultra-heavy packs I stopped bothering to make comments (much to the relief of my son).

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Hypermaterialism on 08/26/2009 09:39:23 MDT Print View

This is what I call the concept of hypermaterialism. It doesn't mean buying everything, rather owning only what you need and a relentless pursuit of quality, as outlined in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There is a famous photo of the worldly possessions of Mahatma Gandhi at the time of his death: a bowl, a couple books, his eyeglassses and sandals, some writing implements and a three porcelain monkeys-- not enough to fill a banker box.

We can be owned by our possessions in so many ways. We frustrate outselves with storing, organizing and maintaining them. They can rob our space, time and finances and bring us stress. I worked in the auto repair industry for many years and I saw many people dragged down trying to own a car when they really didn't need one. They got caught up in not being able to afford a reliable car and poured their resources into broken down vehicle and lived with the strees of being stranded by a junker. I now work in the electronics reycling industry and see a steady stream of cast-off toys-- most of which still work. Our media and computing binge is shameful.

It really struck me the other day when I was changing channels and landed on an infomercial for vaccum storage bags for clothing. They showed these massive piles of clothing sucked into small packages with a vacuum cleaner. Of course the concept they missed is that they don't need 10 or 20 sweaters! If you have more sweaters than you can wear AND store, it's time to give some to people who need them.

My other favorite example is the chapter on economy in Thoreau's Walden. And he saw it happening in 1854, let alone 2009.

Walter Underwood
(wunder) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Free and light on 08/26/2009 12:56:11 MDT Print View

Once in a while, you hit on something that costs nothing, weighs almost nothing, and works better than expected. On our scout troop's week-long trek in the Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness Areas, we brought basins made from cut-down plastic milk jugs. We used those all the time, even fighting a wildfire.

For some photos, see: my blog post on fighting the fire.

Edited by wunder on 08/26/2009 12:57:37 MDT.

David Drake
(DavidDrake) - F

Locale: North Idaho
Re: Hypermaterialism on 08/26/2009 13:06:36 MDT Print View

Dale, thanks for the reminder. While I could never get my library down to a couple of books or eliminate many of my tools (we all have our vices), your comment and Brad Groves' article may be the spur I need to get rid of much of the redundant crap in my non-hiking life.

I wonder about the implications this article and these comments have for some SUL/UL/lightweight practices of having multiple packs, bags, stoves, etc just to optimize weight for every conceivable condition.

Edited by DavidDrake on 08/26/2009 13:07:10 MDT.

Andrew Schriner
(lettheguydance) - F

Locale: Midwest
Good thoughts and a practical tip on 08/26/2009 14:17:43 MDT Print View

Wonderful, thoughtful article, and wonderful, thoughtful replies.

I have a rather practical comment to make (seems out of place though next to the profundity that precedes it). I too have a soft spot in my lightweight pack for sleeping gear - who wants to be miserable on the trip from not being able to sleep? - and I've had tremendous pillow success with a 1.8 oz homemade fleece bag with velcro closure, into which I can put anything reasonably soft to make a good pillow. And when I carry a down jacket in winter...ohhh it's nice. I'm sure a similar item, used with the down or climashield vest you mention would be very comfortable at low weight.

Happy adventuring!

Robert Brookshire
I spy a ray of light! on 08/26/2009 18:04:35 MDT Print View

Brad wrote:
"I have been living on the wrong scale. I hadn't been living in reality."

Awesome! There are literally hundreds of millions of people, mostly in the United States but also abroad in other regions of the OverDeveloped world that desperately need the realization you just summed up so insightfully here. We are not only nickel and diming ourselves to death, but are also nickel and diming the entire Earth to death with our seemingly small actions that are entirely out of scale with all other living things. If you apply this same perspective to the entire human world that you've been raised to live and believe in, you're in for a wild ride down a rabbit hole that goes far deeper than you ever imagined. Kudos and good traveling to you.

David Drake
(DavidDrake) - F

Locale: North Idaho
Whole life gear list on 08/26/2009 18:15:47 MDT Print View

Project for a conceptual art piece:

Inventory and weigh all possessions (minus food, water and fuel, of course) to calculate one's whole life base weight.

Clearly, according to the post above, Ghandi sets the UL (maybe SUL) standard. How about the rest of us?

At one time, everything I owned fit in an Audi Fox, with room for a passenger *and* I could see out the back window. But that was a long time ago...

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Whole life gear list on 08/26/2009 19:55:55 MDT Print View

Project for a conceptual art piece:

Inventory and weigh all possessions (minus food, water and fuel, of course) to calculate one's whole life base weight.

Get Material World.

OR ... in the spirit of this topic, check it out from your local library. If they don't have it they can probably get it via inter library loan.

David Drake
(DavidDrake) - F

Locale: North Idaho
Re: Re: Whole life gear list on 08/26/2009 21:07:58 MDT Print View

Thanks--I'll check it out.

Andy Dixon
(sideshowandy) - F
lightweight lifestyle on 08/28/2009 02:39:41 MDT Print View

great article

luckily i saw the light a little while ago

i no longer buy outdoor gear as i have far, far too much stuff already.

if i actually need a new piece of gear now (rather unlikely...), my rule is that it can only be obtained by sale/trade of some of my existing gear otherwise i will not buy.

what a difference that alone has made to my credit card bill which i always clear each month as i have never allowed myself to live in debt. if i can't afford it well, i shouldn't buy it should i? and i use my credit card for all purchases - food, utility bills etc - in fact anything i can. why? well, i get 1% back over the course of a year & that adds us to a decent amount :-)

i have far more normal clothing/footware, books etc than i can possibly justify. i am gradually sorting through all of this and most weeks I find myself dropping a bag off at the charity shop.

i am also evaluating all my spending and like others found that all those little incidental purchases add up to a shocking amount over time!

the end result is a feeling of immense relief, adopting a lightweight lifestyle has lifted a burden i never even realised was weighing me down

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: lightweight lifestyle on 08/28/2009 16:08:25 MDT Print View


Good point about credit cards. Like you I use them without ever carrying over a balance therefore the leeches don't suck any interest outta me. I avoid cards with annual fees too. And I too get points with every buy. Anyone can do this, but you have to have the discipline to treat a card purchase like cash. It's fun to think that you are using their money for free. Just don't fall into their trap.

Some of the other life light ups my wife and I are trying: disconnected cable TV. Rabbit ears work fine for the major networks and PBS. There was a few days of separation anxiety (wife was a cable news junkie). But now we don't miss it.

Also, we dropped our telco phone line. We both use our cell phones only now. This idea we got from both of our sons who had been only using their cells since they flew our nest.

And - we're reducing the times we eat out.

And - we grew our own tomatoes.

Edited by gmatthews on 08/28/2009 16:11:42 MDT.

J├Ârgen Johansson
(Jorgen) - M

Crowns and grams on 08/29/2009 02:55:23 MDT Print View

Interesting article. If I remember correctly "economy" means "housekeeping".
A couple of years ago a friend of mine made a comparison between cost and weight for "traditional" gear and lightweight gear. He found out that on the average the light gear was 1 SEK cheaper per gram. One Swedish Crown/Krona is about 15 cents.
That is; a 2 000 gram backpack usually retails for 1000 SEK more than a 1 000 gram backpack over here, and so on.
The exception is of course really light sleeping bags, which are more expensive than heavier ones, but they are included in the average and it still boils down to 1 SEK cheaper per gram.
Would be interesting if anyone would do something similar for the US. The article can be found here, for all who read Swedish ;-)