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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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Jeff K
(jeff.k) - F

Locale: New York
Re: Crowns and grams on 08/29/2009 06:58:26 MDT Print View

For those that can't read Sweedish, a decently translated version from google is available at the link below.

English Translation

(mountainwalker) - MLife

Locale: SF Bay Area & New England
which scale do you use? on 08/29/2009 13:21:10 MDT Print View

Nice piece Brad. Started a similar journey years ago, worked out nice light systems in which items have multiple functions if possible, sold off almost all of our old heavier less functional gear, etc. and still completing that journey (quilt or sleeping bag and NeoAir are last items to switch out). Just curious, which scale did you buy, how much was it and where did you get it? I've been using post office scales forever, spoiled by nearby post offices, but can justify a scale for home office use as well.

Donna C
(leadfoot) - M

Locale: Middle Virginia
Re: Ultralight Economies of Scale: Budgeting for Your Pack & Wallet on 08/30/2009 06:14:15 MDT Print View

I echo what others have stated. I may not be UL but getting close. I was raised that you get what you pay for, and if you can't pay for it, make it. Quality goods last a lifetime. It seems like in the UL community, there is plenty of quality goods with all of the small cottage businesses that we support. I pretty much have the gear that works for me and still paring down the weight with the smaller items. I will finally have my sleeping system complete and that will be the end of my Big Three. This has also fallen into my non-hiking life as well. I dusted off the sewing machine and am back to making my own work clothes. Or shop at the thrift stores.

Great article, Brad!

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Budgeting comments on 09/07/2009 13:10:57 MDT Print View

I'm back from a great trip. Thanks for all the great comments! I was surprised to see how much crossover there was between my daily and backpacking life. It takes a lot of self control to not "just" buy that mid-day drink... and it can also be hard to not "just" add that one extra something to the pack.

EJ, the scale is a random thing I found on Ebay or Amazon or something. Digiweigh, 1000g capacity, 0.1g accuracy... and cheap.

Rog Tallbloke
(tallbloke) - F

Re: Budgeting comments on 09/07/2009 13:53:12 MDT Print View

Nice article Brad. I have a Pitney Bowes 2kg electronic scale for pre-trip planning and gear selection. But when travelling abroad I find packroom for a cheap 2kg spring balance which I use to carefully plan our return flight weight allowance with. We tend to go handbaggage only.

As with all good pieces of UL kit, it's multi-purpose. I also have it dangling from my pack strap when I buy food on foreign markets. It's a sort of talismanic threat which seems to be effective with street traders, I've had a few laughs and comments about it in unknown languages.

On the rare occasion I manage to hook a fish I weigh it to calculate cooking time too.

Well worth it's ounce it is.

Edited by tallbloke on 09/07/2009 13:56:44 MDT.

Megan Parker
(mkparker919) - F
Great advice on 09/11/2009 15:17:20 MDT Print View

Thanks again for your generosity in sharing a rainy-day shelter on IRNP, Brad, and for inspiring me to begin my ultralight journey. Glad you had a good trip!


Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Great advice on 09/12/2009 17:25:39 MDT Print View

Hey, Megan! Sounds like you, Heidi and Jan got back in one piece... Have fun with the journey!


John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
2 years and 2 hikes and I was converted to Lightweight Hiking on 12/02/2009 22:07:21 MST Print View

Hike number one was a section of the AT begining at Hot Springs, NC with a total "wet" pack weight of approximately 34 pounds. My empty pack weighed in at 4 lbs 13 ozs! So much for the goal of sub 5 pound base weight. I bought it on sale solely for its large capacity. So I believed I was spending my hard earned money wisely. This pack now gathers dust. No money or weight was saved by this purchase. My tent weighed just under 4 pounds. I had it for years and saw no reason to buy a new one. My sleeping bag weighed in at a tad over 3 pounds and my 3/8" closed cell sleeping pad added 10 ozs. Totaled up the "big three" bordered on 12 and 1/2 pounds!

I was carrying things like an 8 x 10 urethane nylon tarp for a rainfly to be used with my tent. I had no idea of dual use and that my tarp could be my tent. My tarp was a 1 pound 11 ounce never used weight. Also in my pack was a 1 pound first aid kit that an EMT would be proud to carry in his ambulance. Good money was spent on both of these items and neither was ever used. I was prepared with my bear bag kit and "just in case" I had an extra 50 feet of double braided 1/8" nylon rope. Let's just say that I was well prepared for camping but not for hiking. Worst of all I wasn't having any fun.

Hike number two was in Cheaha State Park in Alabama. My new pack weighed 2 lbs 7 ozs empty. My sleeping bag was 1 lb 2 ozs, my closed cell 24" wide pad cut to torso size wieghed @ 8 ozs due to its 3/4" thickness and my shelter had become a 2 lb 12 oz hammock and rainfly. My big three total was now weighing in at 7 lbs 13 ozs. I was learning to go lighter. Funny thing about this process my wallet also got lighter. My hard plastic water bottles had been traded in for recycled "sports drink" bottles. These bottles were the turning point and the begining of my fiscal responsibility in going lightweight. The 1 pound first aid kit was replaced by a 3.5 oz quite adequate solo kit in a ziploc bag. It was put together by dividing a newly purchased 7 oz kit into a pair of 3.5 oz kits. That makes one for the day pack and one for the trail. The 1 pounder rides in the emergency bag in the rear of the family car. I had dropped 4 lbs 11 ozs and a ton of cash but my total "wet" weight was still 27 pounds. I was lighter but not lightweight. I enjoyed the hike but in my estimation I was a 50/50 hiker/camper.

Today I am preparing for hike number three. I hope to be doing a section of the AT ending in Damascus, VA. Thanks to the MYOG articles my pack is a personalized version of Jay Ham's SUL pack. Ironically I used my old urethane nylon tarp for the material to sew this new pack. No new money was spent in the construction of this pack except for two spools of thread. I have made the turn towards going lightweight on my back and my wallet. I haven't weighed this pack as yet but the tarp weighed 1 lb 11 ozs before I started cutting into it. Since only a little over 1/3 of the tarp was used in the construction of my new pack I estimate it to weigh @ 12 ozs. I have kept my 1 lb 2 oz sleeping bag and 2 lb 12 oz hammock and rainfly. I replaced my 8 oz pad with a 3/8" torso sized pad that simply has to weigh less since it is 20" wide and half the thickness. Since I do not own a digital scale I will guesstimate its weight at 4.5 ozs.

All totaled up my big three weigh in at 4lbs 12.5 ozs. I loaded up my gear from hike number two's pack into my newly sewn pack and used the venerable pack on, pack off, bathroom scale method to ascertain my new total wet weight of 14.5 lbs.

This new pack is not the final version. Already I feel my wallet getting lighter because I see where I can correct some errors and make improvements. The prototype used only already owned items of gear and two new rolls of thread. To construct the new and improved model I ordered some supplies. My investment will still be under $30.00. I still have plenty of the tarp left over.

Gear lists come and go but these are some examples of items in mine. I wear one set of clothes while carrying another in my pack. I wear one pair of socks and liners while carrying two other pairs of each to rotate. I use a pack liner so gone are the half dozen 2 gallon close and seal bags and the pack cover. Pack organization is achieved through the use of two urethane nylon stuff sacks made only to the size necessary to contain their contents. I hike between early June and late October. I check the almanac and the weather often before I set out. Therefore I carry no raingear as it is usually warm and I am already wet from persperation during the hike.

During hike number two it rained on my hiking partner and I for nearly 5 hours. I used my poncho to cover my pack but I let the rain keep me cool.

I progressed from 8 plastic tent stakes to 8 aluminum stakes to the 4 titanium stakes that I carry now.

Gone are the heavyweight mid ankle height waterproof boots. I now wear low quarter trail runner style hiking shoes.

I am considering replacing the rainfly on my hammock with a 6 oz lighter and larger version from the same manufacturer. I just felt a sharp pain in the area of my left hip pocket!

My toothbrush is cut down and my trowel is shortened and full of lightening holes.

cut down and lightened plastic trowel

I must admit that I am tempted to go back to the ground. I have been oohing and aahing over a l lb 9 oz tarp style shelter complete with bathtub floor and bug mesh. It could bring my big three down to 3 lbs 9.5 ozs. Ouch! There's that sharp pain again.

My conversion is ongoing but not complete. To paraphrase a saying that I have heard I look forward to the day when, "We who have hiked so far with so little are now qualified to hike anywhere with nothing".

Party On 2010,


Edited by Newton on 12/04/2009 23:45:53 MST.