The maxim "know more, carry less" is at the core of a lightweight approach to backpacking. It encompasses the idea that through the clever application of knowledge we will be able to reduce the weight of our packs. For this edition of Ultralight Makeover, I've decided to take this maxim quite literally, and focus as much as possible actual knowledge which we might carry with us, to reduce weight.
What do I mean by that? Well, we all know we can cut off unnecessary straps and labels from our packs and clothes to reduce the weight of our gear by minuscule amounts, which, when added together, can add up to a surprisingly significant weight. This is probably the big cliché of ultralight. But while that is undeniably the application of knowledge, it it not knowledge we can apply on the trail, but rather knowledge that we nerdishly beaver over in our kitchens and gear closets. It's closet knowledge, if you will. Trail knowledge – tips, tricks and information that in themselves can have a direct effect on reducing the weight you carry – is quite hard to find, considering the "weight" of the "know more, carry less" tenet.
The next question we must ask, then, is this:
Is there any such thing as "ultralight knowledge"?
Does "ultralight knowledge" differ from normal backpacking knowledge? The answer is "yes, and no". A lot of the knowledge we should be interested in is the kind of information any self-respecting outdoor-person would want to know; how to use what we find in the environment to make a decent fire, or securely pitch a shelter, how to tie knots, etc.. These are the core skills of any backpacker, but they are also surprisingly often neglected skills.
Alongside this traditional information, is a set of focused knowledge that draws on ultralight principles, or has been adapted to suit the requirements of the ultralight hiker and all his/her needs.
But knowledge is knowledge, and it should be applicable to anyone, no matter what they carry. In this article, I have tried to focus on information, ideas, and strategies that in themselves can be used to make a difference to what is carried and/or how it is used, rather than providing information about the best equipment for a particular job (which is amply covered in the rest of the articles in this series). The knowledge explored in this article is not so much about gear, nor is it exclusively for dedicated ultralighters.
With that in mind, let us begin...
Only you know what you truly need when you go hiking. No amount of texts – in books or online, concerning ultralight, lightweight or traditional backpacking – can tell you what you personally need.
Advice written by someone in another country is unlikely to be 100% relevant to conditions in your own. I find this to be increasingly true, and particularly the case when it comes to ultralight gear: rain gear that is excellent in Colorado is useless in the UK, and what might be considered warm clothing in the UK is utterly inadequate for Lapland. Marketing descriptions and inaccurate rating systems are unhelpful in this, to say the least. Many companies target a particular, geographically-located market, but in their marketing to that group they give the impression that their gear is universally appropriate, when most of the time this simply isn't the case. It has become normal practise to justify the worthiness of a product by simply producing a photograph of someone wearing it in Antarctica, or the Himalayas. These environments signify "extreme" to us, yet our own locale can be extreme in entirely different ways, and garments or gear supposedly "tested in Antarctica" can turn out to be woefully inadequate in Scotland.
You have a far better idea of the conditions in your locale, and what you need to cope with them. If you are going hiking somewhere new, you should do your research into the conditions you will experience, covering everything from the weather to fuel availability (especially if you are planning to burn wood). It is this core knowledge that will inform any weight-saving decisions you make while hiking.
To this knowledge must be added your personal complexity and self-awareness: each of us experiences conditions differently. Some are happy to hike in the rain, others will cancel a trip if the forecast looks a bit iffy. To take this further, one person's idea of "rain" is different to another's; Colorado's daily brief but violent storms are very different to the prolonged, week-long rain often experienced in the UK.
Your physical condition affects how you hike and what you carry. If you know you sleep cold, don't trust the ratings on manufacturer's bags or quilts – get something you know will keep you warm enough. If you get hunger or sugar crashes, carry some high energy snacks for emergencies, and/or make sure you have enough long lasting food fuel to keep you going. That doesn't mean carrying additional meals (which would be especially wasteful on a short trip), but maximizing the calorific and nutritional value of the foods you do carry (see Ultralight Makeover Pt. 6 for more info on this).
Know what to cut and what to carry
In the introduction to this series, I covered the value of keeping records of what you use and don't use on the trail. This is one of the most valuable sources of information that will help you lighten your pack weight. On every trip I've made, there have been items I've ended up carrying and not using – dead weight, if you like. Each time I assess the contents of my pack when I get home, and make a note if there are any items I can live without. Next time I pack, I try to make a serious assessment of whether or not I really need them. (I use Bento to track my gear weights. Sadly the software has been discontinued, but if you happen to have a copy, you can download my template here.)
An anecdotal example: since moving back to Lapland, one of the items that regularly sneaks its way into my pack is my Hangfire Hoody. Now, being fleece-based, this is fairly bulky item, and not particularly light (457g / 1lb). Whenever I return home having not worn it, I think to myself Dammit! I'm not taking that next time.
And then mysteriously I renege on my promise. When I'm at home packing, I think to myself it's probably going to be pretty cold up there, outside all the time – I might be glad to have this in the evenings, so in it goes with my MontBell ExLight puffy, taking up nearly all the room in my stuff sack.
I think what happens is this: at home, in the comfort of my cozy, centrally-heated apartment, I'm happily adjusted to my warm, fluffy, domestic bliss, and I assume that when I'm hiking, outdoor 24 hours a day, I'm going to get cold. But what really happens when you are outside all the time, is your body and mind adjust. You get used to cooler temperatures (we're talking about Lapland here, remember, and relatively cool summer temperatures). Hiking and camp chores keep you pretty warm – certainly enough to keep warm with a combination of a base layer, mid-layer, down/synthetic insulation, and windshirt/rain jacket if needed.
So I know I probably don't need it. But then again, I also know it can snow in July. I've now replaced the Hangfire with a Montane Fury, but I'm fairly certain I'll still carry it; even if I don't need it, I know it has high potential for use.
Probably the largest amount of weight you can sensibly save on a short trip in the warmer months is by taking a lighter shelter instead of a four-season tent. As seasoned, long-distance hiker Roger Brown points out, even in northern Europe you don't need a four-season tent in summer. If it does snow, it's not going to snow like it does in January. For most ultralighters, tarps, pyramid shelters, or super light tents are the way to go for three-season trips – and you can read much more about choosing one in Ultralight Makeover Part 3.
Similarly, if you're hiking somewhere where it's reasonably warm and you know it's unlikely to rain constantly, you can leave the rain pants behind (I would recommend taking a light rainproof jacket top in most situations, no matter where you are). A pair of quick drying hiking pants will do exactly that – dry fast – usually before you even realise it. See Ultralight Makeover Part 8 for more info on recommended clothing.
While on the subject of rain, skip the rain cover for your backpack. They don't keep your pack dry anyway, and it's more effective to have a (much lighter) waterproof liner sack inside your pack, into which everything that must be kept dry is stuffed. Items such as your sleeping bag and clothes, that absolutely must be kept dry, should be kept in waterproof stuff sacks (I like the eVent ones for quilts and clothes, as you can easily compress the air out of them and make the contents super compact).
For colder places, such as northern climes with cooler summers, I often carry a pair of long johns just in case. Jörgen Johansson, however, says that a pair of 50-60 denier ladies leggings/stockings do an adequate job, and make him feel simply wonderful. I've not tried them yet, but combined with a rain skirt, and an umbrella/parasol, they offer quite a transformational experience for manly hikers.
Lastly, a repair kit of some form is an essential item, especially on longer trips, but you don't need to take the Black & Decker and a workbench – a simple kit that will allow you to improvise a solution will suffice. Here are the items I normally carry:
- duct tape (wrapped around trekking poles)
- needle and 2m thread (you can also multi-use dental floss)
- safety pins
- a Leatherman micra (or Swiss Army Knife)
- a self-adhesive air mat puncture repair (1)
- a short length of thin wire
- super glue (the smallest you can find)
Repackage / Re-use / Recycle
"Do not take a whole bar of soap if you can cut off a corner. Do not take 300 grams (10 oz) of shampoo or detergent; instead, pour a small amount into light plastic bottles with good screw caps."
Foods can be transferred into ziplocs, especially if you try freezer-bag cooking. Liquids (soap, ointments, hand sanitizer, sunblock etc.) can be portioned out into much smaller mini-bottles. Be cautious however, re-packaging things like antibiotic ointments that might come into contact with open wounds.
On a related note, you don't have to spend additional money to save weight. Check your cupboards or medicine cabinet for small containers you could use to lighten your load. Eye dropper bottles can be put to good re-packaging use, for example, for water purification using Aqua Mira.
The lids from some hot sauce bottles also fit on water bottles, which can then be used as an excellent fuel bottles. There is no need to buy an expensive (and heavy) metal container.
One of the lightest water bottles you can buy can be found in pretty much every food store – assuming you are hiking on a route with ample water, a basic .5l plastic water (PET) bottle is enough to carry all the water you need between refills.
All these things can be re-used and adapted to an ultralight lifestyle. I love hunting for bargains in the supermarket, and making good use of the things that I find.
Bring this into your everyday mentality - keep an eye out for items that, with a little imagination, could be adapted or re-used on the trail.
You'd be surprised what you can come up with.
First aid and other health considerations
First aid is one area where the "know more, carry less" maxim fails. A more appropriate phrase would be "know less, carry less". However, Backpacker's advice goes a little too far – you would do well to pay some attention to your first aid kit, and more importantly, your knowledge about first aid (unless you have an urgent desire to meet your untimely end).
The most succinct, weight-saving tip regarding first aid is this: take only what you know how to use. Know what kinds of injuries and accidents you are most likely to encounter and are able to deal with, and take only equipment and supplies that might help in those circumstances. There is no point carrying a comprehensive first-aid kit unless you plan on using it, and know what you're doing. This is not to say that you should followBackpacker's advice and take nothing but a bandana, but rather you should tune your kit towards containing items that are actually relevant for your abilities.
While there are some good first-aid kits out there to serve the aspiring ultralighter (Adventure Medical Kit's offerings spring to mind), most people will put together a ziploc kit of their own to meet their specific needs. Many of the shop-brought kits contain too many items, irrelevant items, or alternatively lack items you might actually find useful. Most also come in unnecessarily heavy bags.
So what's in Backpacking North's ziploc first aid kit?
Well, it varies according to season, activity, and location, but here are the core items:
- 10 - 20 ibuprofen in a mini ziploc – even on short weekenders I carry more than I will likely need, just in case. I don't want a headache to spoil the occasion.
- anti-histamines (in spring/summer for allergies, bites, or alleviating excruciating mosquito savagery)
- gauze pads (sterile)
- 5 plasters
- 2 butterfly closures
- lip balm (carried)
- talc (in summer, mainly to prevent chafing, jock itch, athletes foot, or other unpleasant manly sufferings)
- 2-3 Compeed blister patches (moleskin patches are equally sufficient)
- 4 mini alcohol swabs
- tick remover
- sunblock (if needed, carried where accessible)
- emergency whistle (unless incorporated in backpack)
It goes without saying that if you need prescription medication, or suffer from allergies, your meds for these should be the first item in your first aid kit.
Other related items that are not a part of the first-aid kit itself
- leatherman micra (a Swiss Army Knife performs a similarly adequate function) - if it has built in tweezers, that's a plus. Kept with my repair kit.
- trekking poles - useful as splints (also tent poles, titanium long-handled spoon, etc)
- duct tape (kept on trekking poles) - useful for any number of things from holding gauze pads in place, to taping up bloodied stump (okay, I made that up, but in theory ... ). I keep this wrapped around my trekking poles.
- guy lines / cords
- safety pins - useful for making a sling - it's pretty hard to tie a knot in a bandana with a broken arm. These are usually in my repair kit.
- bandana / clothes - can be used for making slings, as tourniquets
- sleeping bag / insulated clothing - used for warmth, or padding
- soap - a tiny, eye-dropper bottle of Campsuds or Dr. Bronners.
- hand sanitizer gel - can also be used to sterilize wounds, or as a fire-starter in emergencies
- minibic / small packet of matches (emergency backup, can sterilise knife/safety pin/needle if needed)
- water purification (if needed)
- toothbrush, toothpaste drops
- pencil (or space pen refill) & paper / field notebook
Things I don't usually take on short trips, but are worth considering if needs require
- immodium - should Montezuma call upon you for revenge
- zinc oxide - good for skin irritation, and also for athletes foot
- hydropel - for softening feet, popular with Andrew Skurka, for one.
- antibiotic ointment
- earplugs (getting a good night's sleep is important for hiking awareness)
- super glue - seals small wounds, but read this.
words from the wise
"[as a] lightweight hiker, your first aid kit includes everything you carry and even the plants, trees, sticks, and branches around you."
Never a truer word has been written – the value of making improvisational use of your surroundings in a sticky situation cannot be emphasized enough.
The next first-aid tip comes from none other than renowned ultralight philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, who famously said that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Preventative measures might include:
- techniques for reducing blisters
- limbering up to reduce muscle stress, aches and pains
- staying properly hydrated
- keeping warm and dry to stave off exhaustion and/or hypothermia
- being alert, aware of your surroundings, and of your exhaustion level
- maintaining personal hygiene
- not overreaching beyond your abilities to the point when you put yourself, or others, in danger
Regarding blisters, while some use oils and ointments (such as hydropel) to soften and hydrate their feet. I find that the combination of trail runners, relatively loosely-tied laces (or at least larger-sized shoes), and quick-drying socks has all but eliminated any problem with blisters (this topic will be covered in more detail in Ultralight Makeover Part 12). Nevertheless, I still carry a Compeed blister gel patch or two in my first aid kit, just in case.
I've mentioned before that I find drinking electrolytes helps to lubricate and refresh my muscles, reducing aches and potential cramping. As with any sporting activity, a warm-up and warm-down period will help get your muscles ready for the day's hike. I find this generally this happens as a natural part of backpacking activities – the morning ritual of taking down a shelter and packing things away in my backpack is enough to get the blood flowing. If I'm feeling particularly lousy (having eliminated the weight of some Laphroag from by pack the night before), I might take it a little easy for the first 30 minutes hiking (while the coffee and ibuprofen kick in).
Keeping hydrated, warm and dry on the trail is a backpacking fundamental the should not be ignored. Hypothermia is possible temperatures above zero if you get wet for a prolonged period. You should also be alert to your tiredness at the end of the hiking day, as that is when accidents are likely to occur. Similarly, not attempting to achieve something beyond your abililties is a sure fire way to get into trouble – and we'll look more closely at in a moment. Finally, as mentioned in Ultralight Makeover Part 9, personal cleanliness is not only key to your health, but to the health of those you hike with.
All of the above preventative measures rely largely on pure, weightless knowledge. But to really benefit from knowledge pertaining to health and first aid in remote areas, you should try to do a wilderness first aid course. This is smart not only for your own health, but for those you might encounter on the trail. We've all read stories of trailside emergencies, and this is one area where a little knowledge could save a life. In the US, NOLS offer courses, as do a host of other organisations. In Finland, Outward Bound (among others) offer them in collaboration with Wilderness Medical Associates. But wherever you live, a quick search on Google will provide you with a course in your country.
If, for whatever reason, you're unable to do a course, NOLS Wilderness Medicine book is packed full of valuable information. They also offer a field guide. Mountaineering First Aid is another book recommended by readers at Backpacking Light.
Know what you're doing
While it's fine to push a little outside your comfort zone, you'll be happier, and live longer, if you find sweet spot just outside your normal zone, but well away from the intersection of astonishingly stupid and potentially fatal. Attempting to achieve something beyond your abilities or skillset – be it packrafting down Class IV rapids or simply hiking too far – is at best reckless. If you're dragging someone else along on a vanity mission, it's borderline criminal.
Knowing your limits is possibly the smartest knowledge you can pack. but can it save you weight? I would argue yes.
An example: while they look cool, there's little point carrying an ice axe – even an ultralight one – if you don't know how to use it, most importantly how to self-arrest when you slip. You would be better off choosing an alternative, safe route that matches your abilities, and not carrying it. There is no shame in doing this. Making a choice that keeps you safe, and doesn't risk other people's lives is an admirable decision.
But that's not to say you shouldn't try new things; that's part of the fun in venturing outdoors. One of the best ways to prepare yourself for new adventures? Take a course. They're always fun, you'll get practical experience from professional, experienced individuals, and you'll learn a lot more than you will watching YouTube.
The most famous courses are probably those offered by the outdoor leadership schools NOLS and Outward Bound. Both incidentally, offer, courses internationally (e.g., NOLS in Scandinavia and elsewhere, Outward Bound Finland and International).
There are also international guiding courses, such as the one Hendrik did in Tampere, Finland, although such courses typically spurn lightweight gear, and if you want to do more mountainous activities, you might want to supplement the education with other courses that meet your specific interests.
For a more focused ultralight perspective, if you're in the US, Ryan Jordan, the founder of Backpacking Light, offers an excellent online courses in Expedition Planning, and an Ultralight Backpacking Boot Camp. For the Ultimate Hiker, you can't beat Andrew "the Yoda of backpacking" Skurka's selection of guided trips. On a smaller scale, you lucky Americans can also find some excellent courses at your local REI.
In Great Britain (cue pomp and circumstance) the British Mountaineering Council offers courses for members, as does the Mountain Training Association. By the way, the British definition of a mountain is anything over 2000 ft / 610m – which is good news as it means we have quite a few mountains after all in Finland – at least according to low British standards! ;)
Talking about Finland, if you want to do a course focusing on ultralight techniques here on the arctic circle, you can find one right here on these very pages. Backpacking North offers experience-driven courses and guided trips in Winter Camping, Ultralight Backpacking, Fatbiking, Packrafting, and Photography. I'm particularly excited about the new Ultralight Backpacking Weekend Adventure – if you ever wanted proof that you really can hike light in Lapland, I'll be happy to guide you and share some ultralight tips.
Right, that's my shameless plug out of the way. Elsewhere in Finland you can find courses and guided trips from Hiking in Finland's Hendrik, and Korpijaakko's Jaakko Heikka, both of whom I have no hesitation in recommending.
Let's turn our attention to tips for the trail.
Know where you're going
Navigation is, of course, key to any trip. That doesn't mean just taking along a map and compass because you know you should have them - it means knowing how to use them to navigate, and how to locate yourself.
A baseplate compass is probably your best bet, and Suunto make some of the most reliable. The A-10 or slightly more upmarket A-30 are good, basic, reliable compasses. The M-3DL is the luxury version, with rubber feet to stop it sliding around on your waterproof maps! All the above compasses are balanced for use in northern and southern hemispheres, and the A-30 and M-3DL have luminous (or "glow-in-the-dark" for us children of the 70s) dials – quite how useful these are in real-world situations is debatable. If you happen to be hiking in the pitch-black night without a headlamp or any other form of illumination, I wish you well.
Some ultralighters – for example DZJOW – advocate the use of micro compasses. However, I would only recommend a micro as your sole compass if you are extremely confident in your navigation abilities. One has to learn to navigate properly – as DZJOW has done himself – before cutting back in this area.
Don't rely on the digital compasses in watches. They too often give inaccurate readings, and you can't use them well with a map. The compass on my Suunto Core has occasionally wildly malfunctioned to the point that I had to reset the watch. If I'd been relying on it, I'd probably still be wandering the canyons of Utah.
You also shouldn't rely solely on a GPS. Electronic equipment has an amazing tendency to fail at precisely the moment you need it the most. You should always carry a paper map – but you can save a little weight by cutting away irrelevant areas – within reason. As Jörgen notes in Smarter Backpacking, you should still have coverage for the areas outside your planned route, and ensure that "escape routes" to nearby towns or settlements are visible. Another idea from Roger Brown is to copy the sections of map you need onto waterproof paper (he uses paper from Toughprint), or treat them with a waterproofing spray. We'll cover more tech-related information in the next edition of Ultralight Makeover.
Lastly, I carry my maps in an ziploc bag instead of an expensive and heavy map wallet.
For much more navigational information, I heartily recommend two books: Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton, and The Essential Wilderness Navigator by David Seidman / Paul Cleveland. These books will teach you how to find your way without a compass, how to use you senses to become more aware of your surroundings, using the landscape as navigational aids, and a lot (and I mean a lot) more.
Online, Brother Brian has an excellent navigation basics post over at Brian's Backpacking Blog, and a three-part series on navigating without a compass (1 / 2 / 3). Brian's fellow über-blogger Philip Werner's will show you how to "aim off" on Section Hiker.
Backpacking Light also has an article on navigating when the trail it is hard to follow.
For maps, check out DZJOW's comprehensive list of free topographic maps.
You can reduce the carried weight of your shelter system in more ways than buying the latest cuben fiber dream shelter. How you pitch your shelter – bet it tent, tarp, pyramid, or otherwise – can affect what you need to carry.
Instead of using poles, utilise natural architecture for rigging your tarp or shelter. A DuoMid, for example, can be hung instead of pitching with a pole. Pass a line through the apex hoop, and suspend it between two trees. It'll convert the already palatial DuoMid into a veritable People's Palace of shelters.
Similarly, a basic tarp offers multiple pitching solutions, and with practice they make highly adaptable shelters – a skilled user doesn't need to carry poles or stakes.
Some good tarping links:
Backpacking Light forum post on tarp pitching (no membership required to read)
Backpacking Light best way to pitch a tarp with fewest stakes
Mike Clelland goes stakeless at Backpacking Light (Membership required)
Trailspace Beginner's Guide to Tarps
David MacPherson's Tarp Shelters .pdf - a pretty comprehensive "introduction".
Ryan Jordan's Tarp Camping in Inclement Conditions (Membership required)
The choice of where you pitch your shelter will have an impact on how warm you stay at night – and therefore indirectly on how much you will need to carry to keep warm enough. Pitching in depressions, next to lakes and rivers, in the path of potential katabatic winds, or in exposed places will inevitably result in cooler conditions than those experienced in sheltered areas (e.g., forest). Tarp-style shelters leave you more susceptible to winds, so a more sheltered location is preferable. In highly exposed places – such as the open, sub-Arctic fells of northern Scandinavia – very good pitching skills, such as the ability to pitch low and solid in a barren, rocky environment with little or no topsoil, are essential.
If you know you will likely be camping in exposed places, you don't necessarily need to bring your warmest winter sleeping bag or quilt. If you have a well-thought-out sleep system, you can wear your insulating clothing – or even all your clothing – for additional warmth. Be duly warned, though, that this is something you should only try if you are confident in your combination of gear and skills, and you should be absolutely certain that you can keep warm at all times. Risking hypothermia or the loss of a critical good night's sleep is foolish and potentially life threatening. Remember: always test your gear to be certain of your comfort level before going on a trip.
Locating your sleeping area on softer, looser materials will also allow you to carry a shorter, torso-length sleeping pad. As Andrew Skurka says in an interesting interview conducted with Jorgen Johansson:
"A skilled lightweight backpacker knows how to find comfort with a 3/8-inch-thick torso-length foam sleeping pad by bedding down on a soft layer of pine needles or forest duff; and they can safely camp under a handkerchief-sized tarp by finding a protected campsite and achieving a taught pitch. An unskilled backpacker, in contrast, will be uncomfortable because they will sleep on soil that’s been packed down and denuded of needles and leaves; and they will be unsafe because they will find an exposed campsite and they don’t know how to pitch their tarp correctly, leaving it limp and susceptible to the wind."
Complementing your torso pad by placing your empty backpack under your legs is another way to achieve some separation and insulation from the ground. Skurka's emphasis on a foam pad is also backed up by Roger, who points out that "CCF pads don't leak". They are also much cheaper and don't weigh as much. We both like Multimats, but they are a little hard to find outside the UK. The Therm-a Rest is an always popular choice, and now comes in a sci-fi edition.
Roger also likes to combine a CCF with a self-inflating pad – he's currently testing a torso length Nemo Zor, which, combined with his CCF, totals just 380g / 13oz. Personally, I don't find torso pads that comfortable – I don't like the way my legs feel as if they are hanging off a ledge, but I'm a side-sleeper, and perhaps a little too fussy. Self-inflating pads tend to be more resilient than the popular ultralight ari matresses. There are many many available, but the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus remains popular, and I notice that the women's Prolite now comes with pretty patterns – clearly essential for wilderness travel.
You can shave off a little more weight by using lighter stakes for the non-load-bearing tie outs on your shelter. I use Easton stakes – the gold 8.5" ones for corners, and blue 7" ones for midpoints. There are lighter options available, but I find these are strong, reliable, and easy to insert into tougher, rockier ground. (Note: the new versions on sale here are supposedly less reliable – the tops have been known to come off.)
Roger also mentioned that he saw a weight-saving tip on the Mountain Laurel Designs site: you can save a few stakes with DuoMids and similar shelters by using just one cord for the side and mid-point storm tie outs. Attach a length of cord between the side mid-perimiter stake out loop, and the side wall tie out (on which you have remembered to put shock cord), then you can secure both with one stake through the cord. I'm sure there are many other cunning ways to reduce the amount of stakes through clever cording. If you have any tips, I look forward to reading them int he comments.
Thomas from Going Lighter found a couple of good videos from Hilleberg on secure pitching. They naturally use on of their tents, but the info is equally relevant for all types of shelter using stakes/pegs.
Use your environment (but treat it with respect)
Returning to the "making good use of the things that we find" theme, nature is abundant in it's provision of items for the alert backpacker. Before you go on any trip, become familiar with the likely conditions you'll be facing. Check, for example, if you'll have an ample supply of burnable material (remember that in some national or state parks taking materials from the ground or the environment is forbidden). If so, a wood-burning stove would reduce your need to carry any fuel (bar something for emergencies, and perhaps some firestarters to help in wet conditions).
Other environmental, weight-saving things you can make use of include:
- snow or sand for cleaning utensils
- rocks for pitching your shelter
- trees for hanging a tarp (suspend a line between two, for example)
- branches as dead-mans anchors for snow camping, or used to dig cat holes
- curls of (fallen) birch bark make excellent firestarters, and very good bug protection: mosquitoes are repelled by the smoke from a smoldering curl
The bushcraft community provides a fantastic resource for ways to make use of nature. While bushcrafters might not all be interested in long-distance backpacking, the "know more, carry less" motto is also part of the bushcraft ethos. Certainly, there is a debate about the disjuncture between bushcraft's use of natural resources (for example, for making campfires and shelters), and "leave no trace" principles (the shelter above clearly does not qualify), but it seems to me that with a little common sense it's possible to find some middle ground. LNT principles require us to leave nature as nature intended, and not mark or scar the landscape. All this requires from the conscientious backpacker is to return what one uses to their approximate original location.
Brian Green highlights this issue in an interesting post with a good discussion going on in the comments. I also found a very interesting article, "From Woodcraft to 'Leave no Trace': Wilderness, Consumerism, and Environmentalism in Twentieth Century America", written by James Morton Turner (Wellesley College).
A Google search will provide you with an abundance of bushcraftery, but here are a few sites to get you started:
No serious bushcrafter would dare to step outside without the knowledge of a vast array of knots tucked away in the gnarly recesses of his or her mind. And the ultralight backpacker can also benefit from such knowledge, even if it's the "lite" version.
Learning a few basic knots will give you a valuable toolset for use when pitching your shelter, stringing up your bivy bag, or hanging your bear bag. With a few knots under your metaphorical belt, you'll be able to manage without ClamCleats, linelocs, or those silly cord tensioners that companies keep releasing.
Knots are one of those things that you know you should know, but I bet I'm not the only one to admit I was late to the party for obsessive knot-tying-freaks. I have a very limited capacity for the retention of knot-knowledge, so I've limited myself to mastering the few that I find essential.
- Overhand knot - the simplest stopper knot for rope ends
- Double overhand - a better, more secure, stopper (used on ends of all cords passing through, e.g., linelocs)
- Clove Hitch - useful for, e.g. securing trekking poles to front and rear porch of tarps without grommet holes
- Clove Hitch (tied using end) - useful for tying something to, e.g., trees
- Tautline hitch - very good tensioner for guy outs (but see below for an even better one)
- Bowline loop - good loop for stake outs (it holds under load, but can be easily untied)
- Bowline on a Bight - for loops in middle of cord/rope
- Slip knot - easily undone, can be integrated into other tensioning knots (e.g., tautline)
- Rope/Cord storage - banish poorly-stored, knotted cord forever!
- Trucker's Hitch - an excellent tensioner
Andrew Skurka wrote a post about his preferred method of rigging a tarp which uses a trucker's hitch. I've not tried it yet, but it has a fanbase of Justin Bieber-like proportions.
If the very idea of knots has you tripping over your shoelaces with excitement, Philip Werner has a post to help you tie them.
Using the items you carry for multiple purposes is one of the pillars of ultralight. Every additional use an item has, the need to carry the item whose purpose it duplicates is swiftly negated.
To get you started here are some examples:
- trekking poles as tent poles
- tent stakes to dig cat holes
- clothes in a stuff sack, or an inflated, empty water bladder as a pillow
- use your backpack as a lower body bivy bag (assuming you're not carrying a Gossamer Gear Kumo!)
- the venerable bandana as pot holder, shelter wiper, towel, hat, or for impromptu Morris dancing
- Dr. Bronners soap as toothpaste
- wearable quilts - insulated clothing and sleep system all in one.
- dried wipes double as firestarters
- a drop of hand sanitizer gel on a cotton ball also makes an excellent emergency firestarter
- Firesteel as toothbrush handle though as Jason Klass points out, if you have braces be very afraid!
- dental floss doubles as exceptionally strong thread
You can find a list of the classic multi-use items at Section Hiker, but there are a lot more clever ideas over on the (free to read) Backpacking Light Multi-Use Gear forum.
The lightest camping stove available isn't a stove. If you're hiking in areas where you are permitted to make camp fires, and if you are confident in your fire-making skills, you can save weight by leaving fuel and a stove at home. I would advise carrying some form of emergency fire-making/cooking equipment, be it a mini Esbit folding stove or some vaseline cotton balls, along with your fire-starting tools (matches, firesteel, minibic lighter etc.).
There's a very comprehensive article on making camp fires safely, and according to LNT principles at Backpacking Light if you have membership.
If not, you can find an infinite supply of fire-making videos on youtube, including one on the Finnish Fire Torch.
Lastly, Backpacking Chef shows you how you can also save a little weight by making your own foil pot lid – a lit on your pot will let your stove heat water quicker, thus saving fuel, meaning you can carry less of it. And don't forget, a simple, lightweight windscreen will improve your stove efficience enormously. Andrew Skurka has the low down on making one.
It's a good idea to test your stove and home in a variety of conditions to get some idea of how much fuel you will actually need on the trail. There is no need, for example, to carry a large gas canister for a three-day hike when a tiny JetBoil canister lasts approximately ten days.
Hikin' Jim has a really clever way to assess how much fuel is left in a gas canister, and Craig Rowe (@hikeclimbsurf) pointed out on Twitter that MSR now integrate this on all their gas canisters. Clever! Now you can have a much better idea of how long those space canisters will last, and pick the lightest.
As mentioned above, one of the most important things to do on the road to ultralight is to test your gear locally before you head out on a big adventure. You don't have to go far to do this – indeed you could even test gear in your garden or local campsite – but I would recommend at least a short hike and an overnighter in a more realistic situation from which you can bail if you encounter any significant problems.
The point in doing this is to gain knowledge of gear and equipment in use, and discover potential failure situations before it's too late. This is particularly important if you are testing new gear or new techniques. Hopefully, after doing this, you'll also be able to better assess what you should take, and what you can leave behind. To quote Mike Clelland, from his book Ultralight Backpackin' Tips, "These little one-nighters allow you to refine your camping skills, and you'll reap the benefits when it comes time to plan those more ambitious multiday trips."
Don't be afraid. Just take it easy.
It takes some initial guts to challenge your approach to backpacking. We've all been there, although many of us might have forgotten initial anxiety of "will I be okay with(out) this?" In may ways, this is the question at the core of ultralight. The answer should always be clear and fairly easy to determine with the application of a little common sense.
It's very easy for those of us who have adopted lighter gear to forget what those early days were like for each of us. We were excited to be travelling light, but also, let's admit it, a little nervous. At least, I was. Don't worry. You'll be fine - just ease into it. There's no need to dive headfirst into sea of cuben fiber. Allow yourself to try a few things out ans find your comfort level. There's plenty of time to lighten up further once you have gained some confidence in your gear, and your new skills.
Read a book
There are many, many backpacking books available, all of which have valuable information for the ultralight hiker and some contain many more tips to reduce your pack weight. These are among my favourites:
Smarter Backpacking, by Jorgen Johansson (Kindle). Has lots of really useful information and tips based on actual experience, for both the budding and advanced ultralighter.
Smarter Backpacking After 50 (Kindle), by Jorgen Johansson. A "sequel" of sorts to Smarter Backpacking, focusing on the needs of the slightly more "advanced" hiker.
Lighten Up! by Don Lagadin (with Mike Clelland) - a good, easily absorbed introduction to the core principles of ultralight, with Mike Clelland's great illustrations.
Ultralight Backpackin' Tips, by Mike Clelland - 153 more specialised tips from the pen of Mike Clelland, sure to tickle your funny bone, and probably the best book at the moment for unusual knowledge and ideas you might not have thought of.
The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide, by Andrew Skurka - satiate your inner gear fetishist with Andrew Skurka's comprehensive, field tested guide. It's packed full of tips and info too – so much so that it's a little hard to take it all in! I don't know how he finds the time.
Lightweight Backpacking and Camping, edited by Ryan Jordan (only available used or on Kindle) - hard to find in print any more but worth it for it's more serious, scientific thoughts on lightweight backpacking. It is now available again on Kindle, which is a plus.
NOLS Wilderness Medicine, by Tod Schimelpfenig - a comprehensive guide to first-aid in the field
NOLS Wilderness Guide, by Mark Harvey - The essential NOLS handbook.
The Backpacker's Handbook, by Chris Townsend - Chris's book is one of the cornerstone publications on backpacking - no backpacker, ultralight or not, should be without it. A new edition was published recently too, so it's bang up-to-date.
Collins Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton. A little stuffy in tone, but packed full of navigational tips from a "micronavigation" perspective.
The Essential Wilderness Navigator by David Seidman / Paul Cleveland - is precisely what the title says.
Allen and Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book, by Allen O'Bannon, with Mike Clelland. If you're into winter backpacking, and get some decent snow, this is full of really cool ideas, I guess that's why they gave it that title.
Babes in the Woods, by Jennifer Aist - A good primer on backpacking with kids.
SAS Survival Skills, by John "Lofty" Wiseman - Corny maybe, but still, a fun read, and with lots of useful information if you happen to get caught in a nuclear strike. There's also a hefty iPhone app. Right. I'm off to eat some grubs.
Andrew Skurka's nine skills that will allow you to go lighter
Backpacking Net's Lightweight Knowledge Nuggets
Ultralight tips at Hike Light
Section Hiker's Backpacking Techniques
Brian Green's tips and tricks