The Ultralight Makeover series looked in detail at ways to transform your backpacking experience. Now we put it all together and take a look at Backpacking North's typical kit list, how much it all weighs, and how someone wanting to move towards ultralight methodologies can take their fist steps along the road to a lighter load.
PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.
The final edition of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
Backpacker magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced ultralight bloggers.
In this edition we look at how to give your feet a break and go light with footwear.
"Would you strap on three-pound ankle weights before a hike? So don't wear heavy or high-cut boots unless you need serious weather or ankle protection." Their "light" shoe suggestions come from likely sponsorship partners Patagonia, Merrell, Lowa, and Five Ten Insight, and all weigh around 2 lbs 3 oz, or 1 kg. The lightest option they promote are a pair of
at 1lb 15oz, or 880 g. All are priced at or above $100.
. Once again,
begins with reasonable advice, then fails to follow up on it. The old adage that "one pound on the foot equals five pounds on the back" is worth remembering. When backpacking we walk long distances, often wearing very heavy boots that we have to lift with every step. The result? After 20 km your legs will know very well the weight of your boots.
Ultralighters often talk about floating along the trail, and part of the secret to this is light footwear. With less on your feet (along with less in your pack) you'll find you can walk faster and further, and at the end of the day you'll be less likely feel exhausted. The miles / kilometers really do tend to fly by.
So how do we achieve this? By radically changing our footwear for the trail. Put aside those weighty boots. Forget those heavy hiking shoes. What we're interested in is
– designed initially for trail runners (surprise!), many of these light weight shoes are rugged and grippy, and perfectly suited to hiking once you accept a slightly different approach, which we'll get into in a moment. What kind of weights are we talking about? A typical, fairly sturdy pair of trail runner-style shoes might weigh about 300g / 10 oz per shoe. Some more extreme pairs weigh 200g / 7 oz. Hyper-minimal pairs even less.
Boots vs. Shoes vs. Trail Runners
It's not uncommon for the venerable hiking boot – the mainstay of traditional backpacking – to weigh around 1 kg / 35 oz
. Following the 5:1 ratio, that would mean you're "carrying" an equivalent total additional weight of 10 kg / 22 lb – or almost double the weight of a typical ultralight backpacker's base pack weight. You can start to see the reasoning for wearing lighter shoes: with a lighter pack, you simply don't need heavy shoes.
The most common defense for boots is that they give you better ankle support. While they undoubtedly offer more support than trail runners, the support they do give is a little overrated. Soft leather doesn't offer much resistance, and the tougher the leather, the harder it is to walk. Plastic telemark boots give truly excellent ankle support, but would you want to walk 10 km in them? You also have to honestly ask yourself whether you
the kind of protection that high boots give on the kind of trails you hike – especially in the warmer seasons. In many cases, flexibility of movement is more of an advantage than limited support.
Traditional hiking shoes – lighter, shorter, but still heavy – offer similar protection, but very little in the way of support (even if this is claimed, it is rarely true). Even a lightish pair around 500g / 1 lb 1 oz per boot puts an "equivalent" 5 kg / 11 lb on your back. And that 5 kg you can certainly feel after a good day's hiking. I would argue that it's far easier to make the transition to trail runners from hiking shoes, than from hiking boots, so if you commonly wear hiking shoes, you're almost there.
Now, I know what you might be thinking...
those trail runners look really flimsy - there's no way you can walk long distances in them!
It's true, they look lightweight – the
lightweight – but it's important to remember that not all shoes are created equally. We must remember that trail running as an activity has different demands than backpacking; the load carried is vastly different for one thing (see
for more info). So when choosing trail runners, we're ideally looking for shoes that can withstand a different set of rigours. Some manufacturers are aware that their shoes are worn by hikers, and you'll find certain models that are a little more sturdy and offer more protection than others, so it's quite easy to find shoes that fit your personal needs.
But don't just take my word for it – take a look at
, from which the following quote is taken:
"For traversing steep, rugged terrain you need strong flexible ankles and light, flexible footwear. Doing exercises to strengthen your ankles is better than splinting them in heavy, rigid boots."
The biggest downside to light weight shoes is that they inevitably wear out faster (the average life of a trial runner is typically around 800 km, depending on trail conditions). But people like
thousands of miles
in trail runners, across vast mountain ranges, along long distance trails, and some even use them in deep winter (we'll touch on that briefly). If you're an occasional backpacker, they are more than durable, and will probably last you a couple of years.
A Glossary Interlude
Before we get much further, it might help to very briefly clarify some of the terms used in describing shoes. Different manufacturers and reviewers use different terms, so it is of use to highlight this should you choose to seek out more info online.
- Sole: The underside of the shoe that comes into contact with the ground. it may seem obvious, but there's a distinction between the sole (and the material its made of) and the...
- Lugs / Cleats / Tread: This can get a bit confusing, as lugs and cleats are sometimes used interchangably for both the tread on the sole, and the holes used to thread the laces. In this article, I use lugs, cleats and tread to refer only to the sticky out bits (or lack of them) on the sole. I don't talk about the threading system here at all, but if I did I'd use the term "eyeholes" just for the fun of it.
- Shank / Flexibility: The shank defines the rigidity/flexibility of the sole. Inov-8 have a nice page showing their various models' shanks, which works as a good example.
- Midsole / cusioning: This usually takes the form of a foam cushioning layer over the shank. The more cushioning there is, the less you feel of whatever you are walking on. I would argue that for long distances and with a carried pack, some form of cushioning is preferable to none (barefoot runners, for example, have none), but too much can reduce your "foot sense" – your ability to assess how the shoe and your feet will react on different surfaces.
- Footbed / insole: The padding (or lack of) between foot and sole that provides holding shape and additional cushioning for your foot (again, barefoot shoes have none). Note that some materials used for insoles soak up more water than others, and remain wetter longer than others.
- Arch support: As part of the midsole/insole, traditional shoes have a mounded arch to "support" your foot arch. Why? Very good question. The "support" given to feet has received much criticism recently as we'll see, with many researchers claiming that it actually harms our feet. Hence, many trail runners and all minimal "barefoot" shoes forego the arch support and keep everything simple, letting your foot do what it was intended to do. If you have problems with your feet, you'll probably need to look at fitted arch supports and other orthopedic assistance.
- Last: The last is essentially the shape of the shoe - the anatomical dimensions of the inside of the shoe which define it's narrowness/tightness etc.
- Toe box / toe splay / wiggle room: the amount that your toes are able to spread apart. Some shoes have narrow toe boxes that limit the amount your toes can move, which can lead to sores and blisters. In general, a broader toe box is better for a natural walking style, and more comfortable for backpacking.
- Heel cup: the shape of the shoe/insole around your heel, that "cups" it and keeps it in place.
- Drop / differential: The difference in height between the heel and the ball of the foot. Typically measured in millimeters. When you stand barefooted on the ground, your foot has zero drop, and you'll see that the drop reduces the more minumal the shoe, to the point of "zero drop" on minimal barefoot shoes (or gloves, as Merrell like to call them)
- Rand: The shoe rand is defined as "a strip of leather placed under the back part of a shoe or boot to make it level before the lifts of the heel are attached", however, the term is also commonly used to describe the protective circumferential rubber, foam or plastic that goes around the upper, offering protection from scrapes and sharp, pointy sticks.
The issue of support
It is common for trail runners to offer very minimal support and/or cushioning inside the shoe, and many have a reduced drop (which you now know all about, thanks to the handy glossary above). The reason for this is clearly and persuasively argued: it results in stronger feet. For years shoe manufactures have applied "science" to the development of shoes that support our arches and cushion our feet. The results? Our feet have become less healthy.
Have a read of this NY Times article –
– from which this quote is taken:
"It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot."
There is plenty more to read on this subject – check out the links at the end of the article.
Getting used to the limited pampering provided by many trial runners does take some time. It's best to wear them around the house or locally for a few weeks to acclimatise your feet to doing their job again. I made the mistake of going on a 32-mile hike in my first pair, and the resulting tendon pains were very unpleasant. Now, however, I wouldn't hike in anything else. In fact, "normal" shoes feel oddly uncomfortable, poking into my feet in odd places.
It would be untrue to say that trail runners uniformly provide no support whatsoever – the shape of the shoe, midsole, insole and heel cup. The point is more that the shoes are much simpler, and in being so they build up the strength of your feet, increasing flexibility and natural muscle support.
I have terribly splayed feed and look a bit ridiculous when I walk (abusive school nickname:
), but I don't have any problems with my trail runners of choice (inov-8s). If you have problems with your feet, clearly you'll need to look at alternative insoles (
) or other orthopedic help that will assist. Section Hiker has
, for starters, as does his über-blogger stablemate
. Beyond that I'm regrettably no expert in foot conditions. Only you know what you need to make shoes comfortable, so bear that in mind regarding any advice and recommendations made here – you're on your own two feet.
If you worry about, or know you have weak ankles, or if you just feel a little uncertain on tricky ground and would prefer some support, smartpacker Jörgen Johanssen has a clever idea: try using
. Typically weighing around 150g, they are much lighter than boots and provide better support anyway. They would allow you to use trail runners and still have some ankle support.
But the issue of support is not the main barrier most people hesitate at before crossing over to ultralight trail runners. For that, we need to get our feet wet.
Waterproof vs. non-waterproof
Let's cut to the chase: the idea of a waterproof shoe is a myth. It's a lie we've been sold by shoe manufacturers for years.
There is no such thing as a waterproof hiking shoe or boot
. All shoes will eventually succumb to water if enough of it is present, and worse, when your waterproof hiking shoes get wet (and I promise they will) they will stay wet. GoreTex shoes take a long time to dry, and leather in particular, when soaked through, is heavy; the only option is to hope you can dry them out by a fire, after which they become brittle and unpleasant to walk in. You can wax them all you like, but eventually, with enough rain or walking in swamps, they will still get wet, and you will end up with wet feet.
The solution? It's easy. You'll kick yourself.
Let your feet get wet.
, Andrew Skurka has this to say:
"'Waterproof' shoes don’t work, period. The manufacturers and the retailers are being very disingenuous with this label. In prolonged wet conditions, your feet are going to get wet. Water will trickle (or pour) in the top of the shoe, or the “waterproof” shoe fabric will fail, or your feet will get wet from the inside because of trapped perspiration. I tried many systems in an effort to keep to keep my feet dry, and eventually I embraced the reality of wet feet and learned how to mitigate the resulting effects. Dry out your feet at breaks and at night, and apply a waxy balm at night to help partially seal your skin against moisture."
We won't deal with the application of hydrophobic foot balms (such as Hydropel) in this article, as this was already covered in
. We will, however, look at what it means to
embrace wet feet
One of the reasons GoreTex has become so ubiquitous is it's claimed breathability. But while it does breath, it does not live up to the hype. Feet still get sweaty in GoreTex shoes, and the perspiration often remains locked inside the shoe in your socks, so your feet get wet from the inside anyway. GoreTex's effectiveness is also reduced by wear, dirt, perspiration, and body oils.
Non-waterproof trail runners, on the other hand, have no waterproofing, and are usually built using a mesh fabric that lets water pass through – in
out – easily. Unlike GoreTex shoes, non-waterproof trail runners are
Because the fabric is thin and aereated, any water that is absorbed by the material dries quickly, and this is the fundamental principle behind adopting non-waterproof footwear: yes, your feet get wet, but they dry quicker, and usually while you are walking.
Mesh upper. Lets water in. Lets water out.
Breaths well, dries fast. Lives hard. Dies young.
Once you embrace the wet foot technique, you will find it incredibly liberating. You no longer have to worry about getting your shoes wet or keeping them dry. Remember stream crossings, and the rigmarole of taking off your shoes and crossing tentatively on tippy-toes over the river bed? With non-waterproof trail runners you just walk straight across, keeping your shoes on. Try it – it can be startlingly refreshing (in more than one way). On the other side your shoes will be wet and your feet might be a little cold, so what do you do?
Just keep walking. After 30 seconds or so you'll find your feet are no longer cold, and much of the water has already been squished out the shoes. On a reasonably warm day, and with a decent pair of shoes, I'm willing to bet that after an hour or so, you shoes will be well on their way to being dry again.
The key to success with this technique is choosing the right socks.
I know what you're thinking –
my socks will be wet, and hiking in wet shoes and socks gives you blisters
. Actually this is another myth: hiking in poorly fitting, tight shoes gives you blisters, and socks wet from perspiration that cannot dry because your GoreTex shoes don't breath as well as advertised only exacerbates the problem.
The trick is to have a
for walking, being in camp, and sleeping. In
we looked at clothing and sock choices, but I will reiterate this briefly here.
For hiking in trail runners you need a short, thin pair of quick-drying socks. The ideal sock would hold as little water as possible, and keep your foot warm. Generally speaking, merino is warmer but slower to dry, synthetic is quick to dry but not as warm – so personal preference will likely dictate which you choose.
As you hike, your feet generate heat that dries out the socks and shoes. However, sometimes the rain just keeps pouring down, or mother nature inconveniently places a river crossing just before you want to stop for the day, and you end up with wet feet in camp.
Drying your feet is vital to keeping them healthy while backpacking. So what do we do when we end up in camp with wet feet, wet shoes, and no wood for miles around to make a fire (apart from picking better campsites)?
A-ha! Fortunately, you packed a pair of waterproof socks with you! In camp, take off your shoes and wet socks, dry your feet, give them a bit of an airing, then slip on your cozy pair of waterproof socks –
(this is where GoreTex is acceptable), whatever you prefer. With your dry feet safely ensconced within their waterproof socks, you can put your wet shoes back on – and keep your feet dry. In camp your now-limited exposure to water/rain will ensure that the shoes don't get any (or at least much) wetter, and the heat from your feet will begin to dry out the shoes some more.
At night, take off the waterproof socks, and slip on your warm, fluffy, sleeping socks that you packed and have kept safely in your waterproof stuff sack (you did this because you read the rest of Ultralight Makeover, so you are well-prepared).
In the morning, don't worry if your shoes are still wet. Don't even worry if your socks are wet. Your feet have had a good night's rest and are dry, warm, and raring to go. Once you're packed up and ready hit the trail, just put on yesterday's wet hiking socks and trail runners and get going. If you're lucky and the weather holds, before you know it your socks and shoes will be dry, and you'll have put another 5 km behind you. Stop and have a nibble of your GORP, and smile at the world with satisfaction at having beaten the elements by embracing wet feet.
One note: sometimes you read about people getting into non-waterproof trail runners who then buy a pair of waterproof socks to hike in. There is no logic in doing this: you might as well have a pair of waterproof shoes. Waterproof socks are going to get wet the minute you step in a stream. They are also not very comfortable to walk in over long distances, and when you do their waterproofness wears out a lot quicker. When they do get wet (and again, they will) you are stuck carrying a pair of heavy, wet, impossible to dry, so-called waterproof socks. Unless you are carrying multiple spare pairs of waterproof socks, you are doomed to having wet feet in camp, and putting your delicate slabs of meat at risk of a ghastly case of pruning. So, remember: waterproof socks are intended for
Talking of pruning, if you really are likely to be walking through swamps for days on end, you'll need to pay attention to minimising the effects of wet feet. Andrew Skurka has considerable experience of this, so
. You might think hiking in wellington boots is an option, but 100% waterproof means 100% non-breathable, and in the height of summer their total lack of breathability means perspiration collects inside the boot, wetting your feet. Additionally, their generally poor fit makes them an equally unpleasant option for long distances.
One alternative for very wet hiking is to wear a pair of
. Neoprene is not waterproof, but is designed to be warm (it's wetsuit material). A thin pair of neoprene socks will keep your feet warmer in the long term if you're spending all day crossing streams or swamps.
, as does
In his excellent book
, Mike Clelland suggests using two plastic bags – the free ones you get at the supermarket for fruit & veg – as an alternative to neoprene socks in wet conditions. This is essentially a cheapo vapour barrier liner system, the idea being that you wear a pair of dry socks, put the plastic bags over them, and then put on your shoes. No water will get in the bags (unless it pours over the top) and the non-breathable bags will keep your feet warm. Of course, over long distances, your feet will perspire more and the socks will eventually get wet, but it's a definitely an idea worth bearing in mind – especially in camp as an alternative to waterproof socks – as those plastic bags weigh next to nothing and are usually free.
The idea of allowing your feet and shoes to get wet might feel anathema to traditional backpacking sense at first, but trust me, once you've tried it, you'll be looking for streams to giddily splash your way through. And on a hot day, the chill of a stream maintained by your wet socks and shoes is very soothing for hot feet.
As Ultralight Makeover focuses on three-season hiking, and Vapor Barrier Liners are typically used in colder weather, I won't cover their use in detail in this article. In short, they make use of a 100% waterproof barrier between foot and show that keeps all water out, and all perspiration within, creating a kind of managed microclimate. It's a specialised technique mainly used in long distance winter trekking, and for more information, once again
Lacing & Fit
Another tip for comfortable walking in trail runners is to tie your laces loosely. The tighter your shoes, the more likely you will develop sores and blisters. Allow your feet and your shoes to breath by loosening those laces.
I've found that sizing up when buying shoes also helps. Over long distances, your feet tend to swell up a little, so it's best not to squeeze your feet into too tight shoes. By buying a pair that are one-size too large, you keep your feet relaxed, and have room for thicker waterproof or neoprene socks in camp.
Ideally, of course, you should try on shoes in the store. The fit of shoes varies a lot among manufacturers, and even between the models of one brand. Watch out for narrow toe boxes which can become uncomfortable over time.
Sole music. Terrocs on the left, Trailrocs on the right.
Feat. Lapland Mud.
The type of sole will affect the usefulness of the shoe. Not only the shoe grip (a.k.a. tread, lugs, or cleats) but the rubber material used to construct the sole. The deeper the lugs/cleats, the better the grip on muddy, slick surfaces, but the greater the potential for trail damage. At the other end of the scale, smoother soles (such as those found on Keen shoes and sandals) emphasise a tread that is gentler on the landscape, and better suited to sandier trails.
For general, well-trodden trail walking, a modest tread is suitable. If you're going to be walking on wet, slippery trails (lichen-covered rocks, tree stumps etc.) a softer, sticky rubber compound will work well with deep lugs to maintain a grip in precarious circumstances.
Similarly, the shank, which affects the flex of the sole, also plays a role. General trail shoes tend to have a firmer, more rigid, shank. Deeply lugged soles are often more flexible, and barefoot-style shoes can pretty much be rolled up.
Minimal barefoot shoes are designed to help you feel the ground beneath your feet, bringing you closer to the trail as it were. In general, I prefer a medium thickness midsole that gives me some trail feedback, but has a firm enough sole to protect me uneven, pointy rock gardens. I like to have a minimal, but present drop (the height differential from heel to ball of the foot, if you recall) of around 6mm, but some favour even less.
The rand – or foamy outside bit – on the Trailroc 255s
Hiking can be a rough business, and mesh is not the toughest material from which to build a shoe. To protect from the everyday scrapes and bangs, look for some form of circumferential padding (rand), usually in the form of a compound foam. This acts as a buffer between you and the twigs and branches that you inevitably encounter when off trail. It doesn't need to cover the entire upper, just the edges around the sole – that way there is still plenty of exposed breathable mesh for water to escape.
Beyond trail runners - minimal footwear
The latest trend among runners is for minimal footwear – that is, shoes with as little as possible between your foot and whatever you're running on. These shoes are supremely light (around 150 - 200g / 5 - 7 oz per shoe), with a minimal drop of 0 to 4mm. Most are designed to be worn without socks, which makes them an interesting choice for hiking – no need to worry about wet socks anyway, although they might be too tight to fit a pair of waterproof Sealskinz in.
The grip / tread ranges from barely anything (e.g.
) to grippy lugs (e.g.
), and the shoe designs go from the traditional (like
) to the Planet of the Apes (
). For more info, check out
. Don't go jumping in feet first though -
Want to go one further than that? How about totally barefoot hiking? Forget the shoes altogether, and just go
. While it's certainly not for everyone (i.e. it's not for me)
I tend to think that barefoot shoes are not really suited to backpacking. They are designed for runners who travel with only a bottle of water, not hikers with backpacks who are likely to venture onto all kinds of uneven terrain.
Sandals, of course, are a perfectly viable alternative to shoes, and ideal in some climates. Beware though – some sandals weigh more than hiking shoes. I have a pair of
which, while nice, are surprisingly heavy. Unfortunately the weather is rarely warm enough in Lapland for me to wear them very often. Many barefoot hikers favor a simple pair of flip-flop style sandals.
Another stalwart of traditional backing is the gaiter – typified by a long, ideally breathable tube of material that wraps around your leg and covers your shoe, it's purpose to keep out dirt, moisture, or snow in winter. For three-season ultralight hiking, you don't need a full-length gaiter. A short, ankle-high gaiter will suffice and help keep sand and grit out of your trail runners. This is smart as mesh shoes tend to let in a lot of dirt and sand which can wear out the shoes faster, and cause abrasions and blisters on your feet.
make a range of very good "spandexy, unisexy" gaiters in weird and wonderful designs which are extremely popular. They attach with a bit of velcro to the heel and a hook on the foremost lace.
are another option, and
designed to integrate with their shoes.
All this is well and good, but what if I just want a pair of light GoreTex boots?
Fair enough. Nobody is forcing you to adopt the wet-foot technique. There are plenty of light weight GoreTex boots out there. The inov-8 Roclite 286 might fit your requirements, coming in at just 286g / 10 oz per boot. (The clever among you will have no doubt figured out inov-8s shoe naming strategy by now.)
Anotehr alternative is the
, coming in at 15 oz / 435g per boot (also
The La Sportiva FC 3.0 (
) comes recommended by Andrew Skurka (albeit for use in light snowy conditions) and at around 1 lb / 450g per boot it's reasonably light.
also looks even better, coming in around 16 oz / 450 g, which appears to be the weight for the pair, and if so that's quite impressive.
inov-8 Roclite 370.
Gone but not forgotten.
Incidentally, inov-8 once made an excellent, non-waterproof boot, the Roclite 370, but lack of demand forced them to discontinue it. It seems they were ahead of the times. One can only hope that they reintroduce something simiar in the near future. For nostagia's sake, check out David Lintern's review at
. I probably shouldn't tell you, but you can
. For the moment, for alternative non-waterproof boots try the
I have to say, though, that you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't give wet-foot hiking a try. And that's my last word on the matter.
So what does Backpacking North use?
Like most people who have made the transition to lighter-weight backpacking, in the past I've used some seriously heavy boots. I was particularly proud when I purchased my Meindl Hiking Boots from a local store after first moving to Lapland. They were big. They were heavy (1112g / 39 oz per shoe). They were constructed of leather, metal, and fragments of neutron star. I could imagine myself stomping along the trails in all weather wearing these monster shoes. Nothing could stop me, because shoes maketh the man, and I was so very manly wearing them.
Manly boots. For men. Grrr!
I also felt very tired at the end of the day, which I guess is not so manly. It was a joy to take them off and give my feet a rest.
When we moved to Minnesota we travelled as light as possible, so I didn't take them with me. For my first backpacking trip "Stateside" I needed a new pair of shoes, and found a pair of
boots, which were made by Red Wing shoes – a local company! I thought they were lighter than the Meindls as they were at least shorter. But weighing them now I discover they are 905 g / 32 oz each. (Incidentally, I see
, and this
After hiking in over 30ºC / 86ºF temps in the BWCAW, I realised it was time for a change, and this coincided with my shift to ultralight (and the start of this blog, no less).
I looked at the online community and found that LaSportiva and inov-8 had the widest range of popular ultralight shoes (with New Balance and Montrail also contenders). I liked the look of the inov-8s (and, admittedly, that they were a British company – a very out of character moment of patriotism there) and ordered a pair of
Without a doubt, these absolutely transformed my hiking experience. Lightweight. Grippy. Breathable. Non-waterproof. They were perfect (admittedly, as mentioned above, I overdid it and ended up with tendonitis, but we all make mistakes). At 295 g (per shoe, for a medium size - my EU46s weigh 340g per shoe) - they are pretty light, and feature a sticky rubber sole that grips exceedingly well on wet surfaces, and a highly flexible Meta shank (i.e. not really there!) that allows free movement and trail sensitivity. The lugs are huge and great for muddy, rocky terrain.
In the left corner, the Roclite 295.
In the middle corner(!), the venerable Terroc 330.
In the right corner, the pretender to the throne, the Trailroc 255.
I liked them so much I decided to get a pair of
s to complement them for different trail types. The Terroc 330s were the
hiking shoe from inov-8, popular and proven among a huge amount of backpackers. While the 295s are great for slippery, muddy terrain, I find the 330s are better for harder, more compacted trails – the "endurance" sole is harder wearing, and the Terra shank much stiffer. The flatter tread / cleats have an odd tendency to pick up a lot of grit (the only thing I pick up with the 295s is my pace). Grip on wet surfaces (ie wood, roots) is ok, but not as great as the 295s. I wear these on daily dog walks in the forest nearby mainly, and on trail that I know are well-trodden.
However... inov-8 have dropped the ball with the new versions of their shoes, using a non-mesh upper material that takes longer to dry.
Back in Finland, I read about inov-8 releasing a lighter shoe with a new sole – Tri-C, or triple compound – featuring not one, not two, but three (three!) types of rubber; grippy, hard, and medium. The
s promised the best of all worlds: one shoe to rule them all. But sadly I found this wasn't to be, and they ended up being more a jack of all trades, master of none. Unlike the 295s, which grip like a polar bear's fangs, the smaller lugs of the 255s left me feeling insecure on slippery rock and roots. They also have an "anatomic" (read: tighter) fit as opposed to the "comfort" fit of the others. There is a
out now, which seems to share the same non-mesh material as the new 330s.
So which of these shoes is my favourite? For backpacking, indisputably the Roclite 295s. They are perfect for the conditions I hike in – variable, rocky, slippery terrain. I feel surefooted in them to the point of not being aware I am wearing them, so I find I choose these more than any other when backpacking.
For general trail walking (i.e. dog walking around Rovaniemi) I pull out the Terroc 330s. They're a good all-rounder, especially for compacted terrain, but I like the grip and lugs on the 295s a little more
As for socks, I've tried merino (
, as recommended by Surka), and while they were (unsurprisingly) a little slow to dry, I found them to be (surprisingly) cold when wet – unusual for merino, which has a reputation for maintaining warmth.
I much prefer
synthetics which are padded where you need padding, a dn thin everywhere else. As they are synthetic they're hydrophobic and dry very fast, yet are perfectly warm enough for three-season use, even in chilly Lapland.
Last but not least, while I own a pair of
, I almost never use them.
What others say / what do others use?
The market for mesh trail runners and ultralight footwear has exploded in recent years. Whereas a few years ago I couldn't find anything other than heavy boots even in the better outdoor stores in Rovaniemi, today I can go to the supermarket and buy a pair of
s (and believe me, I am very tempted, too). This is an incredible about face for the industry.
Because there are so many options to choose from now, it would be impossible and pointless to list them all. Instead I'll follow the same method as earlier editions of Ultralight Makeover, and select shoes that have proven their reliability or are popular with other bloggers. Note also that shoe models change annually, and are often redesigned, replaced or just plain removed from sale in the time it takes to write a sentence about it. It's very frustrating for your dedicated blogger, believe me.
You'd be forgiven for thinking I've been paid by inov-8 to write this article – unfortunately I haven't; it's just a fact that their shoes are very popular, particularly in the EU where they are based (at least until the UK makes up its mind and leaves in a bug huff because nobody listens to them anymore), and they have a wide range (perhaps too wide?) to choose from. Alongside inov-8, the other historically big trail runner manufacturers are La Sportiva and New Balance, both of which have a larger following in the Americas. Recent members of the gang include Merrell, Salomon, Salewa... you name them, everyone wants a piece of the mesh action.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the most beloved shoes among backpackers is the
. Built using inov-8s "comfort" last, they come recommended by
, and Colin Ibbotson who has worn them on long-distance hikes and come to a common conclusion that they are relatively
. I just saw
also has them, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. Remember, however, that inov-8's new materials are inferior to the old style mesh, and sadly the 330s can no longer be so highly recommended.
the current top shoe is my favourite, the
(get them before they mess up the design of these, too!). The Terroc 330s also fare well, as do the
, the latter of which gets a
La Sportiva Raptors pop up regularly, although the new model, the
has yet to receive a lot of attention,
of the original.
, and Maz, after his
, called them "
" They certainly look the part.
, liking them apart from the grip.
s, but recently got a pair of Salomon Speedcross 3 (
) which also
. To be honest I'm a touch suspicious of the amount of New Balance reviews over at Backpacking Light, but these look and sound like a reasonably good pair (they appear to be EOL though).
)the most comfortable pair of trail runners he's ever worn. They're a zero drop, barefoot style shoe which
, and Ryan Jordan described as "
." In the comments below, Jeff Jacobs points out that the new, improved Lone Peak 1.5 (
) ups the ante even more, and included a built-in patch of velcro to accommodate gaiters such as Dirty Girls.
Speaking of gaiters, I know Joe at Thunder in the Night
, and I liked the look of
saucy pair of Dirty Girls which I saw in Käsivarsi.
, which is more than can be said for the LaSportiva XCountry's in the same review. If you want more reviews, may I suggest you google "Dirty Girls" and see what you come up with.
So how did Backpacker do?
Not very well, it appears. They completely missed the whole wet-foot phenomenon and instead played it safe with a bunch of shoes from big name brands, more likely out of obligation than genuine interest. Of the shoes they did select, the Keen Alamosas are described as the "shoe most testers reached for when not carrying a load." And they call themselves
magazine. Tsk, tsk, tsk.
It's also somewhat surprising that they left shoes till last. I would consider what you wear on your feet to be a fundamental element of backpacking. To offer only a couple of noncommittal lines at the end seems to vastly underestimate the importance of the part of your body that does most of the work when hiking.
The End. Or is it...
Well, there you have it. We've reached the end of
Ultralight Makeover Redux.
I hope you've enjoyed reading, and found something useful within that helps you on the road to lightening your load and transforming your backpacking experience.
I'll be updating this series of posts with new items and revised links as frequently as humanly possible, but the sheer number of links and rapid pace of "progress" makes it hard to guarantee each and every link is working and up-to-date.
As I re-write, I'll revise with the texts with updated info, less typos, and more bad puns, so watch out for that.
Thanks for reading – and happy trails!
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:
(Backpacking Light - members only)
(Backpacking Light - members only)
PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.
Part 11 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
Backpacker magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced ultralight bloggers.
In this edition we look at the ways "smart tech" can help you achieve a lighter pack weight.
Backpacker opens by asking "Does going ultralight mean going ultraprimitive?" I think we all know the answer to that one is a definitive no – if anything, ultralight, while espousing simplicity, stands astride at the cutting edge (ouch) of backpacking technologies developed or adapted specifically to lighten one's load. In many ways, ultralighters are backpacking's early adopters – we act as (sometimes inadvertent and gullible) guinea pigs testing out the lightest materials before they become adopted or rejected by the mainstream backpacking manufacturers.
So, then, we can agree that technology plays a significant role in ultralight, but what
is rightly or wrongly interested in when it talks about "smart-tech", is high tech gizmos and gadget geekery.
As a rationale behind choosing which gadgets to take into the wilderness, they advise that "your gadgets should have a clear purpose and, whenever possible
replace other items"
[my emphasis]. While this logic might be viable for their example of books ("listen to podcasts on an iPod instead of packing a book"), they also
apply that same rationale to "the ultimate multitasker: an iPhone or Droid loaded with tunes, audio books, a star chart, and ahem, our navigation app (GPS Trails Pro, $3.00, backpacker.com/apps)."
Yes, you read that right,
just advised you to carry an iPhone instead of a map and compass.
If I catch anyone using that app I'll dunk your phone in a lake. Use a decent iPhone or Android app if you must, but please don't ever rely on a smartphone as your only means of navigation. Always carry a map and compass – they might not be able to multitask or play Angry Birds, but they have the singular ability to function without batteries, and rarely malfunction.
Aside from the fact that
contradicts its own advice (if "smart-tech" should replace something, what else are you replacing with that iPhone? A star map? A boombox?) how about a scary thought: take nothing. Allow yourself to think, ponder, observe, listen. Enjoy the outdoors without the interfaces. You're out there to get away from the everyday, not drag your gadget addiction with you.
I know, I know. You came here to read about tech stuff, not receive a lecture in ludditism. Don't worry,
I'm as much of a gear head as anyone else. I like to try out new toys and find it hard to tear myself completely away from modern technology on the trail. For better or worse, that's the world we live in. Technology exists all around us. Even when we are in the middle of nowhere, we stand amidst invisible signals and wavelengths, and at some point we might welcome being able to be geolocated, or to locate ourselves. Arguably, the development of GPS and other technology encourages us to explore more freely, to travel more widely, and with more confidence. I'm absolutely not denying the need for essential navigational skills; those skills themselves were once technological developments that facilitated exploration. Modern tech is merely the latest in a long line of innovations; to deny its value would be akin to ancient mariners rejecting the use of those newfangled sextants.
Before we delve into the wonders of so-called smart tech, it should be stated clearly that
very few of the items on this page qualify as essential ultralight equipment
. All of them will
weight to your pack rather than
weight, and with one or two exceptions, they could easily be left behind.
As regards what defines "smart tech", this article will primarily cover the use items requiring battery power, which includes GPS and other sateilite locaots, smart phones, cameras, ipods, eBook readers, watches, headlamps, weather instruments and devices to charge the numerous batteries you'll end up carrying (you will be carrying rechargeable batteries, wont you?). I also throw in a couple of less smart tech items as they didn't really appear anywhere else - knives, monoculars/binoculars. As the article is over 8750 words long, I almost cut these, but decided to leave them in for the sheer hell of it. I can't promise that everything you are about to read forms a complete analysis of currently available smart tech, but at least it should hopefully be a little more informative than
original 50 words
As usual, I throw in a smattering of third party reviews along with my own opinions.
Perhaps the most commonly used piece of smart-tech today is GPS. Only a few years ago it would have been considered extravagant to carry such a device, but today, with falling prices and GPS abilities built in to most smart phones, carrying some kind of geo-location technology is increasingly common.
There are numerous devices to choose from, each with differing abilities. Typically, a dedicated hiking GPS today will feature a colour map so you can easily locate yourself. The higher end models add cameras and video, additional apps, and approach smart phones for functionality.
Simpler (or older) models forgo the map for a basic waypoint-based system and leave the actual landscape navigation to you and your map, and in some ways there is much to be said for this method: it forces you to use and become experienced with a map rather than relying on electronics; the costs are lower; digital maps are not required, and as they are often expensive (unless you can find free ones) this saves additional money and faffing around. They also typically require less power and have much longer battery life.
That said, I use a
, which has a small, colour touch screen display. It's a fairly typical, basic unit – small enough to fit in a pocket, with about 18 hours of battery life, and simple to use. It does some digital bells and whistles (fishing calculator, geocaching app etc) which I never use. I find it perfectly adequate for my needs. I wrote
, but at 153g / 5.3 oz (inc. batteries) it's small and light enough to leave in your pocket and forget about it.
Garmin has pretty much cornered the market on handheld GPS units. Another very popular (slightly cheaper) unit from Garmin is the eTrex, which comes in a variety of flavours. Roger from Nielsen Brown Outdoors uses one and is particularly pleased with the extended battery life it achieves over the more power-hungry, colour touchscreen models. The
is the bare bones model Roger uses, the
adds a colour screen and maps, and the
throws in a 3-axis digital compass, and pressure based altimeter. All weigh around 5oz / 141g.
Even simpler is the
– picked by Andrew Skurka as a bare bones, cheap solution that provides longitude/latitude and basic waypoint tracking.
At the upper end of the scale (in both ways), Garmin also offer the now-stylishly-redesigned
(6.8 oz / 192g - and
) and the even larger
(11.7 oz / 331g) - see what they did with the naming there? While these models have cameras and other shenanigans built-in, I find them a touch too large, and I'd rather carry a decent camera (of which more later). The Montana does claim to have a "glove-friendly" display, but I find the Dakota also works fairly well with gloves.
One good thing about the screens on all these is that they work best in sunlight, so you can often turn on the screen backlight and save power.
Another good thing about Garmin is that you can install your own downloaded or scanned maps, so you are not totally dependent on the exorbitantly priced ones sold online. Their cross-platform BaseCamp software is also quite good, and is regularly updated.
Do you absolutely need a GPS? No, not really. They come in useful when visibility is poor (i.e. fog) or geographically restricted (i.e. canyons, assuming you get a fix) – so it largely depends on where you're hiking. I like to take one mainly to track my route and keep a record, but I have used it to locate myself on several occasions. These days, I usually carry my Dakota with me on all but the dullest hikes – even if most of the time it remains stuffed in a pocket, forgotten, it's nice to have if needed, and I enjoy looking a the track when I return home.
Lastly, the Garmin GPS units use AA batteries (I use rechargeable ones), which I think is an important consideration. It's much easier to swap a pair of AAs than to attempt to recharge internal batteries on the trail. In general, I prefer to use standard replaceable batteries when hiking for all electronic equipment whenever possible
Check out the range of GPS devices at
Sateillite Locators / Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
In my experience, most 3G/4G cell-based (mobile/cellphone) services are next to useless outside major population centers – even if coverage is claimed, it often vanishes at the merest hint of elevated land. Satellite-based communication provides far better and more accurate coverage than your average mobile/cell connection. And as the devices are primarily used for emergency location, they often don't have battery-draining screens, and last far longer (assuming you don't overuse the e-communication or tracking options).
However, when we think of satellite location devices, we are really talking about three types of devices which are often confused, so let's begin by clarifying:
- Personal Locator Beacons are a one-way, single purpose device: they send an emergency-only SOS signal when triggered, and not much else. They require no additional service fees. The
is an example.
- One-way messaging devices use a satellite network for simple tracking, one-directional messaging (e.g. "I'm safe", and emergengy SOS location. The one-way communication services usually require an additional monthly service fee. A
is a good example of one such device.
- Two-way messaging devices facilitate some form of bi-directional communication, usually text messaging or emergency communication, as well as tracking and SOS location. The initial and monthly costs are a little more expensive. The
is a good example.
(Note: I'm not including satellite phones in this article – I consider them to be a little over the top for the short weekend trips that are a focus for the
(147g / 5.2 oz) is probably the most well known device, and has been used by the likes of Ryan Jordan for deep treks into the wilderness. It integrates nicely with their online mapping system, so friends and family can follow your adventures and know you are safe (or in danger) - which is often cited as the main reason for carrying them. The tracking is quite good is you live in an area that is covered. SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite network (in fact Spot is a subsidiary of Globalstar), and if you check the coverage map (below), you'll see that northern Finland lies on the border of coverage. For this reason, and because of incomplete coverage elsewhere, some people prefer
(see below) which uses the Iridium network that claims 100% global coverage.
SPOT / Globalstar Coverage (from SPOT website)
SPOT also offers the
(140g /4.9oz) which works with iOS/Android as an interface, however I would question the usefulness of this when bearing in mind the appalling battery life of mobile devices. While it's possible to extend the battery life of phones (as we'll see), when one piece of tech starts to require carrying another two or three in order to provide power and functionality, it starts to get too far away from what I'm looking for on an outdoor trip. I spend enough time as it is juggling gadgets at home to want to start doing that in the wilderness. It should be noted that it is, however, possible to send an SOS signal using the Connect without the accompanying iOS/Android device, so even if you do run out of power on your device, you can still get help when needed (although there has also been some criticism of the search and rescue effectiveness of the emergency signalling methods used by SPOT -
has a generally more positive reception among the outdoor community – although comments about its weight (227g / 8oz) and annual costs are plentiful. When combined with a smartphone, the inReach offers both
communication (i.e. it can receive messages too) and GPS tracking/mapping (however note that apparently the detail provided is lower outside the US). However, the same caveats mentioned above apply for phone battery life.
The other big names in the sateillite location business is Yellowbrick and Briartek.
has a good following and appears to be very reliable. Initial costs are higher, but running costs lower. It has very good battery life, which is a good thing as it uses an internal, USB rechargable battery. Briartek offers the
system, and even has them available for rent ($65/2 weeks).
Reviews among the outdoor community are sadly few and far between.
a couple of years ago, and a more up-to-date state of the market report was recently featured on
(membership required, but recommended reading if you are interested).
For a "back-to-basics" approach, a personal locator beacon (PLB) might be all you need. The
(153g / 5.4oz) offers simple, emergency SOS functionality, and they even offer to give you a new unit should you ever need to use the device in an emergency. The initial costs are lower (
) and there are no additional service fees, although ACR now offer an optional, very simple SMS/Email "I'm OK" service for $40/year (
) which can also be used for basic tracking. So if you're willing to eschew the fancy gizmo factor and have something for emergencies only, this might be all you really need. An alternative model is the
, but it lacks ACR's tracking option which some might find attractive.
carry a satellite locator? Currently, no. I'm looking into it however, but I'm always turned off by the pricing structures. DeLorme is very expensive, while SPOT is cheaper but offers an apparently less reliable service. I want to let my family know I'm safe while away on trips, but I can't afford annual subscriptions that I infrequently use (plus I hate subscription models as a rule). So I find myself in a quandary about which to choose, and end up choosing neither, relying instead on the age-old method of telling people my route and making an emergency and contingency plans. I suspect that in a few years, services such as SPOT and DeLorme will disappear as they are rolled into smart phones or watches. There are problems with that, of course – SOS services are already notoriously prone to abuse by lazy hikers – but technological convergence is inevitable.
iPhone / Android
Undoubtedly, a smart phone allows you to take smart tech into the outdoors. There is an overwhelming amount of apps for almost every conceivable purpose (and several inconceivable ones) that range from the mediocre to the essential. With GPS, accelerometers, cameras, torches, and even, I'm told, the ability to make
, these devices have transformed how we experience the outdoors – to such a point that there is a danger that our experience becomes more one of augmented consumption of the outdoors rather than pure enjoyment.
Do we need to take these devices into the wilderness? Should we? Whichever side of the geofence you stand, these things are here to stay. You either embrace them or leave them in the (locked) glove box. Me, I tend to take my iPhone with me, but leave it off most of the time in the attempt to save battery and remain as disconnected as possible. Fortunately, with spotty 3G coverage outside the city, this is relatively easy.
A few years ago, I wrote a short article about the iPhone apps I use most outdoors (
). Looking back at it I see some that I continue to use, others that have fallen by the wayside, and more that did not exist or were not popular at the time.
, astonishingly, was released the month after I wrote the article, in October 2010 – since then it has reached it's zenith of popularity, and fallen foul of corporate greed. If you ever want to feel the weight of rapidly passing time, look back a couple of years in your digital archive. The reference to "Droid" in the
article inspiring this series already feels oddly anachronistic.
Today, the smartphone landscape continues to change, affecting our experience of, and actions in the wilderness, as well as our interactions with each other, both in real and online space. This will not be an exhaustive discussion; instead, as with the rest of the articles, I will highlight a few of the most popular, relevant apps. I have tried, where possible, to include apps that exist on multiple platforms, but I have little or no knowledge of Android or Windows Phone, so I leave any interesting addenda to the comments.
continues to provide the most "GPS-like" functionality on iOS. While other apps exist for basic tracking (RunKeeper, Endomondo), MotionX feels like a GPS unit. The downside is that its maps leave something to be desired.
Other tracking/mapping apps include AccuTerra, Gaia, EveryTrail, and TopoMaps in North America, with Memory Map and Anquet popular the UK, and Karttaselain in Finland, UT.no in Norway, and a zillion other regionally- and country-specific apps available at the tap of your fingertips.
If I had to pick a stand out app,
(iOS/Android/Nokia) comes to mind. It is an increasingly international app (it began as very UK-centric) with downloadable maps for a growing number of countries. However, the most interesting thing about ViewRanger is it's connection to another online mapping service: Social Hiking.
I think it's fair to say that
has revolutionised live, online tracking for hikers. After setting up your account and linking it with ViewRanger, your phone automatically sends beacons which are updated live online. It's kind of like a lite version of SPOT/sateillite tracking (and, in fact it also works with SPOT & Yellowbrick devices), but connected to an abundant (and ever growing) array of social media services, so any tweets, photos, video, or audio you spit into the digital wind are geotagged and magically placed on the map. It's a fun service that works globally, even if ViewRanger doesn't have a detailed map for the area you are in. Of course, there is one major downside: on a phone live tracking is reliant on your access to a network connection. In well-populated areas this is not an issue, but sadly here in Lapland the poor network availability away from civilisation gives poor results.
, so the whole world was able to follow my dog walk and diaper run!
For checking the weather, I currently mostly use eWeather HD (
). There is a tendency among weather apps to emphasise cool, visual interfaces over useful information. As a backpacker, it's helpful to have more information at your disposal than "it might rain". eWeather provides pretty much everything you can think of – wind speed, air pressure, precipitation predictions, humidity, sunrise/sunset, moon phase, aurora predictions – and does so in a reasonably compact and intuitive interface. It also allows you to choose Foreca or U.S. Weather as a data provider.
Although I really don't like to spend much time using my phone, I occasionally allow myself to catch up on some reading late at night. I save interesting articles I come across on twitter or
, which allows for offline reading (providing you download them before you leave) when far away from network signals. I also occasionally use iBooks, mainly for reading .pdfs which I transfer to it via Dropbox. I prefer a physical book to reading from a screen, but iBooks or the
app facilitate e-reading if that is your cup of tea. It would make more sense to read using a Kindle or phone from an ultralight perspective (as we shall discover), but I've never felt comfortable with it.
Of course, you can also listen to music, podcasts, audiobooks or watch movies from your smartphone. Again, I rarely do this, preferring to be at peace in my surroundings. But if you find some music helps you relax at night, go for it, the more uses you can find for your smart phone, the better. I can't imagine there are many people who trek into the wilderness to watch
Iron Man 3
on their tiny screens in the evening, but if you do, I'm not one to judge; just do it over there, well away from me.
If I do want something to keep myself busy in empty moments, I still keep a couple of Knot apps on my phone. Even if I do
, I find practicing new knots in camp is a good way to keep the knowledge fresh (like thay say, "if you want to learn a knot, tie a knot a lot". The apps I use are essentially the same as those listed in Apps for the Wild at Heart:
. There are plenty of
These days, I prefer taking a real camera on trips, but it is possible to get acceptable results from many in-phone cameras. Instagram rose to dominate the social photography scene, but after facebook acquisition and a PR disaster over usage rights, it feels far less alive than it once did. I certainly use
far less these days, opting instead to sharing "real photos" via
I often forget that my phone shoots video. The quality is reasonable enough for documentation purposes, but good video is hard to achieve without being dedicated to the task. I find that I can only focus on one thing at a time: taking photographs or shooting video – and in general I prefer photography. Making a good video requires a lot of time and planning, and I find this to be at odds with what I want from my trips. The process is very different to photography, a fact which is oft forgotten. (I also, somewhat against the grain, don't particularly enjoy watching backpacking videos or gear reviews – they take up too much of my time and you can't easily skip past waffly sections like this.)
There are not many other photography apps that I use on a regular basis, but one you might be interested in is
, which, as the name suggests, calculates the optimal times for photography in any location worldwide. It also plots the compass bearing for the sun's position throughout the day. It's a useful little tool for planning your shots.
A final word: remember the battery life. The more you use your smartphone, the quicker it runs out of battery, and the less smart it seems. You might need your phone to make an emergency call or SMS. Even in poor reception areas you can often climb to the top of a hill and find just enough coverage for emergency purposes. But you can't do that with a dead phone.
It's a worthwhile point to remember that an older, simpler, backup cell phone (I have a crappy old Samsung clamshell thing) has a much longer battery life (often up to a month on standby) than power-guzzling devices with retina screens, GPS, camera, light sensors and other whizzo tech. If you truly want to go ultralight, consider going technologically ultralight too. My iPhone weighs 140g, my crappy Samsung clamshell, 70g – but my iPhone
a lot heavier – the constant nagging of twitter, facebook, push alerts; the oddly urgent
to check it regularly; the
to use it or to play with it. When I don't have it with me, I
a lot lighter, and a lot more connected to nature and those around me. So much for "connecting people".
iPods / Music Players
Are there other music players than iPods these days? Somehow even iPods feel a little out of date. But if you don't have a smart phone, or don't want to carry yours, but you still feel the need for the soundtrack to your life, consider taking the smallest, lightest music player you can find. The
's 15 hour battery and 2Gb storage should last you on a weekender, and can play music, podcasts and audiobooks.
Kindle / Nook / iPad etc
E-ink readers can offer significant weight savings for avid readers. The weight of the
(6oz / 170g) is a fraction of a weighty book (
), and allows you to store hundreds more than you will ever read while on a trip. The newest
even has a backlit screen which is an advantage in the wilderness. Battery life is ridiculously good (8 weeks for the Paperwhite, though using the light will reduce this), and the e-ink screens offer a much better reading experience than even retina-display equipped tablets.
The rigours of backcountry travel will necessitate some kind of protective and waterproof cover which is beyond the remit of this article (but important enough that you should consider it for all your valuable electronic equipment). I once accidentally sat on my wife's Kindle, cracking the screen: when it breaks, it becomes useless, but at least all your purchased books are safe in the cloud.
use a Kindle? No. I just don't like them. I'm old school, and prefer the feel of a book, the ability to flick to any page, the smell, the sound, the set of the type; the whole bookish experience. I don't like the way e-ink readers re-paginate, I don't like the fonts on offer, and the feeling of engaging with a device distracts me from the experience of being spirited away; I am continually drawn back to the technological present. I can completely see their worth for the backpacker, and especially for the ultralight long-distance hiker, but they are not for me.
I always end up stuffing a book in my backpack, and 99% of the time it returns with me, unread. I find when I am out there, there is either plenty to do, or I am content to sit back and observe the world. The one time I do read is on rest days on longer trips, in which circumstances I can imagine nothing more pleasant that sitting on a rock with a book in hand.
But that's just me.
...or, as Suunto would like you to call them,
The range and functionality of technologically-loaded watches has been growing in recent years. Alongside Suunto, Garmin, Casio and HighGear have a range of watches for various types of outdoor activity. The watches we are interested in are those which feature altimeters, barometers, temperature guages, digital compasses, and more recently, GPS functionality.
I've been wearing my
) every day for over three years now. It's an "ABC" wrist-top computer, with Altimeter, Barometer, Compass (ABC), with temperature guage, storm alarm, altitude/barometric logging, sunrise/sunset times, waterproofiness, and an inverted black screen. I stand by what I've written in the review, and after three years of daily use I would emphasise the following:
First, the inverted black screen might look cool, but it's impractical in use. If you get one, go for a traditional black-on-white screen.
Second, if I was buying one again, I would get one with the rotatable bearing dial around the outside – again, the Core Extreme (which I own) is a case of design over practicality; it looks nice, but the lack of dial makes it less useful. Third, the compass is incredibly unreliable. I never use the thermometer (because you have to take the watch off for it to work), the altimeter, or the altitude logging. The best aspect of the watch is the barometer, which works as long as you regularly set the reference altitude, and can help you predict local weather conditions. The storm alarm works well providing you are stationary or are moving on relatively gentle terrain.
I note that newer marketing texts for the Core describe a "unique start-from-zero function [that] simplifies altimeter usage by eliminating need to enter a reference altitude". I don't seem to have that functionality on my watch, and cannot find any info anywhere online about what that really means, but if it works, then it solves one of the problems with these watches: the barometer and altimeter are co-dependent, as both height and barometric pressure are measured by air pressure.
Suunto has a range of different Core watches, but the only difference between them is in the external design and materials used, and the corresponding prices they charge. If you really want to lay down some cash, the
will happily empty your bank account. At the other end of the scale, you can still find the venerable
in some places – it's simpler, cheaper, and has a reputation for reliability.
Casio also offer their range of
watches with similar functionality, and how shall I put it...
less minimal design
. They seem more reliable and popular than the range from
is a nice carabiner-style clip-on watch). The
watches do, admittedly, offer a couple of advantages: they're solar powered, and they set themselves automagically via the atomic clock, which is undeniably cool.
The latest thing to cram into your wrist is, of course, GPS. Both Garmin and Suunto are in on the game with the
. While both have some limited form of breadcrumb tracking, the Fenix seems to have a slight edge feature-wise, with integration with their BaseCamp software, and wireless integration with iPhone. Both use rechargeable batteries; Garmin claims around 16 hours use in GPS mode (50 hours with more limited use), which is barely enough for a weekender, and I suspect real life usage times are less (one review on REI of the Fenix claims 8-10 hours of active use, which is pretty lame). The Ambit appears to fare a little better, at around 25-28 hours. In the end it's hard to say which is better, so I'll pass you on to some other reviews and let you decide:
If you raise your eyebrows at two-sentence reviews of products, check out this 13,000+ word, fully illustrated baby!
Do any of these devices help in lightening your load? Not really, unless you normally carry a separate watch, GPS, altimeter, barometer and thermometer. You certainly shouldn't omit the real compass from your pack, and if you need a GPS, then one of the dedicated units mentioned earlier would be more reliable and useful.
There are some cases where an altimeter and barometer can come in handy, but in pretty much all circumstances, alternative solutions exist: just look at your map/the sky/your compass.
I suspect that this year (or at least within the next three years) the marketplace for wristwatch-style computers will be forever transformed, and we'll soon be doing a lot more with our wrists (ahem) than current products allow. If
do make an appearance, expect to be loading GPS, weather, and a whole hose of useful apps on them, and for Suunto to fall behind the times like another well-known Finnish company. It will be interesting to see what happens – but until then, check out the full range of Ambulation-Oriented Wrist-Top Super Computers at
Headlamps & Lanterns & Flashlights
You'd think that, having moved beyond the days of the venerable candle lantern, the choices for ultralight lighting would be simple: grab a simple headlamp and go. But no. Even the humble headlamp has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the age of USB programming and headlamp hacking.
Take the current high-end offering, the
. It features a reactive lighting system that automatically adjusts brightness to ambient conditions. It even comes with software that allows you to program it's output for various activities. It weighs 187g / 6.6oz. Frankly, I think it's overkill for backpackers, ultralight or otherwise. And the more you complicate a relatively simple thing, the more that can go wrong with it.
Not wanting fall behind in the headlamp development race, Petzl also introduced the
– a rechargable/prorammable battery pack for their range of smaller, Tikka2/Zipka2 lamps. It allows you to program the light output to suit your needs. From an environmental standpoint, the rechargeable battery is a good thing, but although the programmable battery is clever (some, including Chris Townsend, like it) I can't help but feel I'm being sold something I really don't need. I can see how, on a long, extended trip of several weeks, a carefully programmed light might be useful, but for general use it just seems like a gimmick. Do I really want to spend time programming my headlamp? What next? Programmable backpacks?
If you take away the fancy factor of programmability, it's simply a rechargable battery, and you can buy a bunch of rechargeable AAA batteries for a fraction of the cost and still walk around with a smile on your face, happy that you are doing your bit to save the planet.
Oddly, the Core battery pack seems to be
at the moment, so if you feel the need to program your lighting, maybe wait until a new version arrives; who knows, maybe it'll let you program it's weight.
So what headlamp does
use? I have two: a Zipka and Tikka – they are quite old now; the newer models have better features. I recommend the
for it's compactness and weight (83g / 2.9oz). It has a 70 lumen beam that lasts 70 hours on maximum, 150 on minimum. Unlike my older model, it also has a red bulb to help maintain night vision and annoy your companions less in camp. The
offers slightly more light (80 lumens) and a more comfortable strap, bringing the weight up to 88g / 3.1oz.
For the true ultralight light, the
wins the contest hands down. Weighing just 27g / 0.9oz, it's waterproof, has a retractable cord, and has white and red lamps. It only manages 26 lumens, but many people swear it is adequate for their needs around camp. It uses those awkward lithium watch batteries though, which provide a claimed 35-70 hours use. I'd like to try one, but in Lapland I face two extremes: 24 hours of light in summer (so no headlamp needed), and 20 hours of darkness in winter (so a longer-lasting, brighter light is appreciated). Your light mileage may vary.
There are other manufacturers making lamps, and in general they are all of a similar quality.
is perfectly okay, with the
standing out from the bunch. The
is popular and light at 2.9 oz / 82g. Fenix make some of the brightest – the
, for example – but remember
One rather clever innovation comes from Mammut in the shape of the
. Combining a headlamp with a waterproof, transluscent dry bag, it creates a lantern that can be used in your shelter. I think it's a smart, safe update of the old candle lanterns, that mixes in a bit of ultralight multi-use sensibility (the dry bag is a stuff sack, which even has volume markings). The
for use with other headlamps. Full points to Mammut. It is certainly much better than the previous big seller (and
, which is both heavy (4.8oz / 136g w/o batts) and not particularly bright.
Talking of lanterns and innovation, this week's novelty gizmo award goes to Snow Peak, who seem to be on a roll recently.
is a riff on Chinese paper lanterns, but cleverly obviates the possibility of you burning down your shelter. The lamp hangs in your tent, provides up to 100 lumens, and has a (get this) candle setting that flickers in response to sound or wind, and will even "blow out" if jostled too much! Seriously, who wouldn't want one of these? It weight 5.6oz / 158g, so it's not exactly ultralight, but we're all allowed one luxury item, right? If I had to choose, this would be mine – it would make those long winter nights quite romantic. There's also a
- a smaller, lighter version (2.4 oz / 68 g), so now you really have no excuse. Get shopping!
While researching the plentiful lighting options available today, I came across another Snow Peak item, the
. I have absolutely no idea what the point of this item is. It's a complete mystery to me. It's advertised in a video featuring fly fishing, to maybe Tenkara bums will snap it up. It weighs a scant 1.4 oz / 40g, throws out 60 lumens, and lasts 55 hours on high. So there you go.
for innovation, though.
Lastly, I prefer, and generally advocate headlamps over flashlights on the trail. Headlamps allow you to keep both hands free (especially handy – haha – if you have walking poles), they can easily be attached to something else, they always point in the right direction, they tend not to get lost or dropped so easily, and these days they are significantly brighter than during the initial switch to LED tech. However, if you are a die-hard flashlight user, you'll find plenty on offer at the links below. I believe Fenix are the people to beat in this area. The
(3.8oz / 107g), which can throw out 740 lumens, should be enough to startle anyone on the trail, but the true ultralighter will prefer the
(0.9 oz / 25g) a simpler, 72 lumen pocket torch just 3 in/ 7.5cm long, and recommended by Andrew Skurka.
Last but not least,
I first read about weather instruments in Chris Townsend's Backpacking book. While I like the idea of measuring and predicting the weather while backpacking, I can't help but feel it's a little unnecessary on short trips. If it's very windy, you don't usually need a device to tell you that. Sure, it can be interesting, but necessary?
Of all the items in this article, wind instruments are possibly the least essential – especially now that much of their prediction functionality is available via smartphone apps. However, I include them for completeness, and because at least the
won't make too much of an impact on your base weight.
In the end their value depends on your potential use for them. If you are hiking up high, in rapidly changing conditions, and might need a more accurate alert to bad weather than that provided by an altimeter watch, then these might be of interest. Otherwise, Mike Clelland's LATS technique (Look At The Sky) might serve you better.
I found three widely available weather instruments by Brunton - and of the three the 1.7oz / 48g
seem to be the lightest and most useful, providing wind speed/wind chill measurement, barometric pressure, temperature, and altitude (the Pro throws in water flow measurement, dew point analysis, heat index etc.). It is able to examine trends and give a potential 12 hour forecast, and includes a storm alarm for rapidly changing conditions. In many ways, apart from the wind speed measurements, it shares many of the features and limitiations of the ABC watches covered earlier – the basing of altitude and barometric measurements on air pressure being the main issue affecting accuracy, and requiring regular calibration.
Kestrel is another manufacturer. The
provides much of the same functionality as the Brunton ADC Pro, but is a little heavier at 3.6 oz / 102g.
I have to admit, being a weather geek, I'm kind of interested in playing around with one of these, and I'd probably opt for the
if I had a spare couple of hundred dollars lying around.
Knives and tools
Do knives and tools qualify as tech? Probably not, and the choices are so numerous and personal it would be hard to pick one winner over all the others.
For tools, a very simple Leatherman or Victorinox is the most popular and sensible choice. My ideal tool would have the following
- a blade
- flat & Phillips (cross head) screwdriver
- mini saw
In the past I would have added corkscrew and bottle opener to that, but these days my inner wino now repackages in platy bags (I just use
). In all honesty, the mini saw is not very useful either apart from cutting very small branches and amputating hiking companions' fingers while they're sleeping.
Typically, however, tools never have the full compliment of items you actually want them to have: there is always one missing that is present on a different model, but that other model is missing something else. Such is life.
I carry a
, and occasionally a
Puuko (knife). The Micra is a handy and very small tool, featuring scissors, flat & Phillips screwdriver, blade, tweezers, nail file, bottle opener, ruler. It weighs 1.75 oz / 50g.
Also popular from Leatherman are the
(4.4 oz /125g - adds pliers, wire cutters, more screwdrivers, can pener, bottle opener, loses the file and tweezers), and the
(1.4 oz / 39g - much trhe same as micra, minus the ruler). When you start to hit the
things get heavier ( 5oz / 141g) but a bit more rugged.
On the other hand, the
is exactly that – a classic. The "Swiss Army Knife" packs a knife, file, screwdriver, scissors, toothpick, nail file and tweezers into 1.3oz / 36g, and some would argue that's all you need. A the other end of the scale, there's always
A good, sharp, basic knife can come in handy for many purposes, and is essential if you are travelling light and using found wood for fuel (with a Caldera Cone or BushBuddy, for example). I have a
, made by Marttiini, based in Rovaniemi, Lapland! It's a classic knife with a flat top good for cutting kindling, and weighs in at 90g / 3.17 oz in its leather pouch. I won't list any other knives as they are such a personal thing; everyone has and favors their own.
Ryan Jordan shows you how a knife, hatchet, and saw will help you find dry wood in most situations in
A potential can of worms as it represents an area of almost infinite variety, annual updatery, and fanatical zealotry; it would be very hard for me to pick out "the" ultralight camera, and as a photographer my opinions on the matter are somewhat lengthy.
I will write more on this subject in the future, but to keep things at their simplest in the interest of finishing this post this year, here are some starting points for consideration. Readers please bear in mind that I am just selecting cameras that I've seen in use, or are currently raved about. There are plenty more out there that some will prefer. Just remember the following two pieces of advice:
- the best camera is the one you have with you
- shoot first, ask questions later (sorry, photo student joke)
If you want to keep your pack as light as possible, and take a step up from smartphone cameras, a compact "point-and-shoot" is the way to go. In recent years I've been impressed with what I've seen from Panasonic's Lumix range, especially the
as it's called in the US). This has gone through several iterations, the current version now being the
. At least I think it is. It's so hard to keep up.
At the premium end of the compact market, the
!) has proven popular (I notice that both Phil And Dave are taking theirs on the TGO challenge). The current model is the
) is a modest update on the LX 5, and it already has some rave reviews among hikers on Amazon.
In a similar vein, the
) gives the LX 7 some stiff competition. Some have called it the best compact camera available on the market today. With a Zeiss lens and CMOS sensor, reviews claim that it's image quality approaches that of a DSLR.
For more control, multiple lens options, and better images, a micro four-thirds ups the ante. They fall nicely in the middle ground between compacts and DSLRs, offering interchangeable lenses in a compact body, making them ideal for lightweight hiking and backpacking. The best of both worlds, if you like.
I have the first edition of the
which is still available (
). Subsequent revisions of the GF series removed much of what was attractive from the original (notably good manual controls), until Panasonic split it off and released a true successor in the
. However, in the meantime, the other manufacturers were playing catch up.
The undisputed current king of the 4/3 hill is the
which has a 16 megapixel sensor, built-in EVF, excellent manual controls, and perhaps most attractively for the backpacking photographer, a weather-sealed body. It looks rather nice and retro too (incidentally, my first-ever 35mm camera was an Olympus OM-30). As they say in Minneapolis, it's a bit spendy, but appears to be worth every cent (
claiming that the DSLR is dead. I'd love one, but the GF1 has a few years left in it yet.
Stepping up again, another camera that receives a lot of thumbs up in the past few years is the Sony NEX5, which has now gracefully matured into the
). With a larger sensor and good user-definable controls it's proven popular with
For the ultimate in relatively compact cameras, a burgeoning range of high-end, rangefinder-style shooters have been released in the last year or so. These are expensive, very high quality cameras popular with professional photographers as secondary- on inconspicuous travel cameras. With the legacy of rangefinders lying in the field of landscape photography, there is much to find attractive in them if your pockets are deep and minted.
In order of expensiveness, the
and Leica M240 (not yet released) all offer extremely high quality image-making in a compact package. Would I like one? Why yes, thank you! I'd love to try a Leica, and you can contact me for the mailing address as soon as it's released. Until then check out some reviews from
Categorising cameras becomes increasingly difficult – for example the
(out soon) fall into the compact category, but also compare with the Fuji X100S. They are all great-looking and performing cameras, but I would say that fixed lenses make them more suitable for street photography. I think for backpacking, having at least some flexibility with zoom range, or a multiple lens set up, is a distinct advantage.
For the pros, I can assure you the DSLR is not dead; in fact it has been reinvigorated by the final adoption of full-frame sensors matching 35mm film in size, and approaching medium format in resolution, quality and dynamic range. In this camp you're either a Nikon of Canon fan, and if you're already at this level, it's unlikely that you need my advice on which manufacturer or camera to choose. I have a
), and I'm very happy with it. The
) is also highly recommended and is a little more forgiving for handheld use. On the Canon side of things, the
) is a favourite. There are of course ample prosumer DSLRs with smaller APS-C sensors, but in my opinion, full-frame is the way to go. With such high resolving detail, you can even get a decent zoom/crop from a 50mm prime lens.
100% loupe, unsharpened or processed. The original image shown here is a 30% crop of a portrait format shot.
This image has also been poorly resized by Blogger.
As for other cameras, GoPro's range of Hero action cameras are enormously popular. The new
seems the best of the bunch for general use, producing 1080p video. The
goes one step further resolution-wise, for "cinema" quality 1440p, which is probably overkill for most. I have a GoPro Hero 2, and while it shoots excellent video for its size and simplicity, I do find it a little fiddly to use. I think they are best suited to more active sports than backpacking. There are a host of videos on Youtube and Vimeo of people doing crazy stuff. My more modest adventures are absurdly tame in comparison.
GoPro is not the only model available, but by far the most popular.
For another shot at the current camera market,
in 2012. Also Peter Nylund over at Yeti Rides just published
Last but not least, if you're taking a camera, remember to pack an extra battery, SD card, and possibly a mini tripod. I like the
). Hendrik recently
, which looks quite good for smaller cameras.
Monoculars / Binoculars
Another item I never carry, but which I know some like to carry for trail scouting or wildlife observation. Generally, if I'm carrying a zoom lens I'll use that to get a closer look at something – it performs much the same function and I have it strung around my neck anyway. And you never know, I might snap a shot of a lesser spotted amber-throated grebe warbler and win an award while I'm at it.
But if you're interested, here are the offerings from
. I'd opt for monoculars for the weight savings. The
seems to fit the bill at a modest 3.2 oz / 90g, although don't expect Zeiss optics.
If you do expect Zeiss optics, then the
) look right up your one-eyed alley, and weigh only 2.7oz / 76g. Leica also make the
) which is a little heavier (128g / 4.5oz) but, hey, it's a Leica.
As for binoculars,
, which look nice if you need them. I would say they are a little overkill for the average ultralighter though.
If you're going to carry a lot of electronic gear, you're going to run into the issue of battery life. The longer you're out, the more power you'll need, which either means carrying a large collection of heavy batteries, or using some kind of recharging system.
Battery chargers come in many forms – solar, kinetic, heat, battery-powered – but all suffer from the same efficiency problems: they don't provide a great deal of energy.
Solar chargers are the most ubiquitous. The idea is to sit the charger on top of your pack as you walk, harvest the rays of the sun, and charge your device(s) as you go. It sounds great, but in practice I've yet to read of anyone extolling the virtues of one particular charger. Most provide a trickle of power, and the dependency of some devices (e.g. iPhones) on a constant charge mean that interruptions in light halt the charging process, and you have to re-plug the charger in again (which gets annoying after a while).
A slightly better solution is to use a solar charger to recharge AA or AAA batteries, and use those to recharge other devices. The bigger the solar panel, the more efficient the charging, and for this reason the larger "roll" panels offer a better solution, albeit at a weight penalty. Whether or not you really need them on a short weekend trip is debatable, but if you do, the
seem to fit the bill.
Rather than charging devices directly, it makes more sense to re-charge a battery pack which you then subsequently use to charge your numerous devices (this basically gets around the problem of interrupted trickle charging).
which combines solar panels with a battery pack, and the
, so you can use it with standard batteries.
is one of the smaller solar chargers that has a few
and at REI. Brunton, on the other hand, seem to bring a different mini solar charger to market around once a week, but most appear to be of little use. If anyone has any experiences with one that actually works and is of use, please leave a comment.
A couple of years ago, a Kinetic charger was announced that got the ultralight backpacking community in a veritable quiver of excitement. The
promised to harness the kinetic energy generated through walking. Can you imagine? It's perfect for backpacking! Unfortunately I haven't yet seen any extensive reviews based on actual use.
with the creator, and
, although at 14oz / 400g it's not the lightest solution available, but there are a couple of reviews at REI that claim a full charge on an iPhone after just 3 hours hiking. That's pretty impressive.
Another recent "innovation" to generate heat (arf arf arf) among the backpacking cognoscenti was the
, which burns wood to boil water, and uses the energy from the fire to produce power that can charge your devices. The problem should be evident with only a little thought: you would need to keep the fire going a very long time to generate enough power to charge anything. It's a very heavy 27oz / 768g too. I'm not the only one to be very sceptical –
with good reasoning (although I disagree with the part about wood stoves not being user friendly – making fire is one thing that distinguishes us as a species, so one would hope we've become
over the last few thousand years).
If you're just looking to extend the life of your smartphone,
make some of the best options that combine battery and case for your phone. Mophie make a
), if you are accident prone, and Otterbox offer the similarly butch
So after all that, what does Backpacking North take?
The whole point of going ultralight is to take only what you need, and cut out the unnecessary stuff. For that reason, I try to limit what I take to essentials: things that might get me out of a scrape or serve some kind of important purpose.
With that in mind, the following items pretty much always find their way onto my packing list:
- GPS (for tracking, occasional position checking)
- Suunto Core (for time and barometer functions)
- iPhone (turned off, most of the time)
- simple headlamp (for winter only - no need for it in 24 hour daylight Lapland summers)
- leatherman micra (knife occasionally)
- camera (GF1 or D800, depending on the trip and potential use of images)
For me, it comes back to what do I want from my trips into the wilderness. If I start to need to carry a ton of equipment, and then more equipment to charge that equipment, I start to wonder why I'm really going into the wilderness.
One reason I go is to force a separation away from all the
the everyday pressures and tensions of living in a connected world. I go to disconnect. But I know it's hard, and I don't really succeed totally. Looking at that list I still see items I don't really need. I could really live without the GPS. The Core is just a watch. The iPhone just a temptation that could be replaced by something lesser. Even a camera provides a distraction from the now, with the constant allure of capturing a moment for the future, to share with others.
Perhaps I should try, just once, going with nothing. Savoring the moments as they drift by; here, then gone.
On the other hand:
smart watches! weather instruments!
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:
PLEASE NOTE: Revised and regularly updated versions of these posts are accessible from the top menu bar under "Ultralight Makeover". What follows is the original post - to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the Ultralight Backpacking world, check out the updated articles.
Part 10 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
Backpacker magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced ultralight bloggers.
Backpacker begins it's pearly wisdom with an age-old adage: "The more you know, the less you carry." It's a truism that is worth remembering. For all the high-tech clothing and gear we might choose to lower our weight, nothing beats experience and knowledge.
The experience and wisdom that Backpacker chooses to share, however, is a little unnerving. Long distance veteran Mike Daniel recommends carrying only two lighters and matches for survival gear. His first-aid kit consists of "[p]revention, as in–he stops every four miles to air out his feet and avoid blisters."
Even the Backpacker editors seem to think this is taking things a bit far. As an apparent caveat, they suggest "caution and improvisation, like making your bandana a bandage."
Backpacking North says...
It's a little astonishing to present such a blasé attitude to the health and safety of their readership under the title of packing knowledge. One can only hope that Mr. Daniel's somewhat cavalier attitude to survival in the wilderness have served him well.
And while preventative measures do indeed help reduce stress and injury on the trail, they do not negate the need for an adequate first-aid kit, i.e. one that is attuned to your personal needs, skills, and the environment you are hiking in.
Similarly, although the bandana is a wonderful multi-use item, it's use as a first-aid kit is rather limited. To my knowledge it has yet to be used as an adequate, storm-worthy shelter, and the warmth it offers on a cold night, even while burning, is somewhat short-lived.
So how can we improve on this situation, and get ourselves "knowledged up" in ultralight-worthy backcountry skills?
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
knowledge which we might
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
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 ultralight campsite - actually a "testing gear" trip to Afton State Park, MN, hence the perfectly manicured location.
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
can be used to make a difference to
is carried and/or
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
for more info on this).
Know what to cut and what to carry
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
to track my gear weights. You can
Bento. A handy tool for anal retentives.
An anecdotal example: since moving back to Lapland, one of the items that regularly sneaks its way into my pack is my
. 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
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.
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
, 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
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
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
will do exactly that – dry fast – usually before you even realise it. See
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)
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
(I like the
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.
, 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
You can save dramatic amounts of weight by repackaging shop-bought items into smaller packages. As
says in his
"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
. 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
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.
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,
'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 follow
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 (
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
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.
An emergency whistle incorporated into the sternum strap of the
- a handy multi-use feature, but remember to add a whistle to your first aid pack if you remove the sternum strap.
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.
I want to mention an excellent quote from Philip Werner (whose
website features a
) who states that
"[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
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
, 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,
, as do a host of other organisations. In Finland,
(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,
book is packed full of valuable information. They also offer a
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
– if you don't know how to use it, most importantly how to
. 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
. Both incidentally, offer, courses internationally (e.g.,
There are also international guiding courses, such as the one
, 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
, and an
. 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
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.
. I'm particularly excited about the new
– 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
, and Korpijaakko's
, 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
or slightly more upmarket
are good, basic, reliable compasses. The
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 –
– 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
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 –
As Jörgen notes in
, 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
is to copy the sections of map you need onto waterproof paper (he uses paper from
), 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:
by Lyle Brotherton, and
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
Online, Brother Brian has an excellent
over at Brian's Backpacking Blog, and a three-part series on navigating without a compass (
). Brian's fellow über-blogger Philip Werner's will show you how to "
" on Section Hiker.
Backpacking Light also has an article on
For maps, check out
You can reduce the carried weight of your shelter system in more ways than buying the latest
. 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:
(no membership required to read)
- a pretty comprehensive "introduction".
A nice spot, eh? But in the morning, the chill effect of proximity to water had reduced riverside temps to several degrees below freezing – much colder than the surrounding area.
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
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
"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."
Even a little shelter can help reduce the effects of strong winds. This location was particularly tricky to pitch in due to the rocky terrain and lack of much topsoil. Perseverance and skill eventually resulted in a taut pitch.
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
, who points out that "CCF pads don't leak". They are also much cheaper and don't weigh as much. We both like
, 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
Roger also likes to combine a CCF with a self-inflating pad – he's currently testing a torso length
, 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
remains popular, and I notice that the
– 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
– 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
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.
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.
Know and use your environment (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.
with a good discussion going on in the comments. I also found a very interesting article, "
", 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
that companies keep releasing.
Say goodbye to these, and get knotted!
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
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,
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
, but there are a lot more clever ideas over on the (free to read)
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
or some vaseline cotton balls, along with your fire-starting tools (matches, firesteel, minibic lighter etc.).
, and according to LNT principles at Backpacking Light if you have membership.
If not, you can find an infinite supply of
, including one on the
Lastly, Backpacking Chef shows you how you can also save a little weight by
– 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
, and Craig Rowe (@hikeclimbsurf) pointed out on Twitter that
. 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
, "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. 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:
, by Jorgen Johansson (Kindle). Has lots of really useful information and tips based on actual experience, for both the budding and advanced ultralighter.
(Kindle), by Jorgen Johansson. A "sequel" of sorts to
, focusing on the needs of the slightly more "advanced" hiker.
by Don Lagadin (with Mike Clelland) - a good, easily absorbed introduction to the core principles of ultralight, with Mike Clelland's great illustrations.
, 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.
, 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.
, 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.
, by Tod Schimelpfenig - a comprehensive guide to first-aid in the field
, by Mark Harvey - The essential NOLS 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.
by Lyle Brotherton. A little stuffy in tone, but packed full of navigational tips from a "micronavigation" perspective.
by David Seidman / Paul Cleveland - is precisely what the title says.
, 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.
, by Jennifer Aist - A good primer on backpacking with kids.
, 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.
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:
How do you reduce your pack weight? Share some of your tips in the comments!
Part 9 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
Backpacker's advice for ultralight hygiene is short, succinct, and somewhat wide of the mark. While they begin with the level-headed advice to "Ditch the deodorant and comb", they soon take a rapid nosedive, suggesting we "[c]arry a travel size tube of toothpaste and toothbrush, and pack hand sanitizer along with your TP and trowel" – a sentence that manages to get almost everything wrong. However, they do rescue themselves with the final recommendation that you "don't stow it all in a heavy ditty bag that weighs more than the contents."
That's it. Backcountry health and hygiene in three sentences. Let's see if we can come up with a few more.
Ultralight? Definitely – but is this hiker ultra-clean? Perhaps the photographer is hanging back for a reason...
Backpacking North says...
Oh, where to begin? Hygiene is an important issue, but
advice seems once again to be given with a complete unawareness of real-world ultralight methods and techniques.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the advice to "ditch the deodorant". A better way of putting it would be to adopt the mantra "it's okay to stink". On short weekender trips, it's unlikely that you'll generate such a offensive aroma that wildlife will give up and die as you pass by. If you do happen to have a more aromatic body type, don't worry; you are far, far away from the kinds of people who care about that type of thing. You can happily go a few days with a bit of a healthy stink about you. I'd say it's even a good thing, once in a while.
If really becomes necessary to de-skank, a wash would be a far better way to cleanse yourself than piling on the deo. Some suggest deodorants might even be dangerous in bear country (although I suspect bears are a little smarter than that, and can tell the difference between synthetic chemicals and food). But why carry them when a quick splash down is all that's needed?
As for carrying a comb… well, that's no worry for us card-carrying members of the bald brotherhood. For those plagued with a lush bouffant of hair, you can probably manage a couple of days living a simpler, carefree lifestyle. If you really must get rid of the tangles and knots, then let's be honest, a comb isn't going to weigh very heavily in your pack. Indeed, compared to some of the other "ultralight" items
has been recommending, a comb is the last thing you should worry about. So if you really want to take a comb, I promise I won't tell anyone. Any cheap plastic one will do – I don't think the market for ultralight titanium combs exists quite yet. If you want to be really cutting edge, you could cut it in half.
Talking of cutting things in half...
Many Brits of a certain age will no doubt remember being poetically indoctrinated in the importance of tooth care, and this is equally valid in the backcountry (well, not the bad poetry part). After a day spent stuffing gorp into your mouth with gay abandon – not to mention high-sugar protein bars, stringy jerky, and a host of other delicious morsels you wouldn't normally touch – it's important to take care of your toothsies.
While it is possible to "brush" your teeth using only a finger and some baking soda, a toothbrush does a much better job of getting between the cracks and into the gums. It's the act of scrubbing that cleanses more than the application of toothpaste.
As many will know, sawing off the handle of your toothbrush is often seen as the passport to the kingdom of ultralight. But in reality, don't worry; you won't be dragged down into hell by hordes of ultra heavy backpackers if you don't. And in fact, there are plenty of better alternatives.
Small, travel toothbrushes are widely available, such as the Liberty Mountain Compact, which includes a bristle cover. You could also use just the head of a Toob, or any small children's brush. Incidentally, you don't really need a bristle cover if you keep the brush in a mini ziploc. It does the same job and weighs next to nothing.
Another alternative is a fingertip toothbrush – they're cheap, weigh around 3 grams, and do a more than adequate job.
As for what you put on your brush,
Backpacker's suggestion of a travel sized tube of toothpaste is a good start. You could also keep your eyes peeled for sampler tubes given out at the supermarket; these are often smaller, lighter, and hold enough for a few days away. Plus, they're free, and free is always good.
But what if you could eliminate the tube, as well as any excess toothpaste you won't be needing? You, sir or madam, should try making your own
First, squirt a few lines of toothpaste onto a plate lined with baking paper/aluminium foil. You should use the "original" style toothpastes – not gels or the ones with little sparkly bits in. Leave it to dry for a few days (or use a dehydrator if you're impatient, or live in a humid climate). When it's hard, cut it in to segments about 1cm long (1/3 inch) and leave for a few more days. After that you can pack one dot per brushing in a mini ziploc, and sprinkle a little baking soda in to prevent them sticking.
In the field, just chew one with a little water before brushing. You won't save a ton of weight doing this, but it's a fun little experiment. There are a few sites and blogs with more info: check out
, and, of course, dehydrator
Or you can just buy
and skip the satisfaction of watching your toothpaste dry.
Other alternatives to toothpaste include brushing with baking soda (although as it's more abrasive than toothpaste, regular use could damage tooth enamel),
, or, for the true ultralighter, brushing with a little
– personally, washing my mouth out with soap brings back horrifying nightmares of my grandmother, but you'd be in the excellent company of Andrew Skurka and Ryan Jordan, who both use Dr. Bronners as a multi-use item.
As for flossing? Well, why not make your dentist happy? It works double duty as excellent emergency thread (being far stronger than ordinary cotton), weighs very little when repackaged, and will ensure a good, clean orifice.
Moving onwards and downwards, it's time to get potty mouthed and talk about...
Much has been written on the subject of disposing human waste and the arguable need for toilet paper. When it comes down to it, it's a personal choice. If you take toilet paper (TP), you need to dispose of it appropriately – and that means either carrying it out, disposing of it in a handy wilderness hut toilet (if you are lucky, as we are in Scandinavia), or burning it (which can be more difficult than it sounds). You should avoid burying TP – I know the intention is good, but wildlife has a habit of digging up the deed and dispersing the paper around; a very unpleasant sight to come across.
A poor choice to make potty: near to the only source of water at the bottom of a canyon.
So what are the alternatives to paper? There is no better primer on the subject than Mike Clelland's treatise on going
. The info has been largely repeated with some additional details in his excellent book
. Another source of knowledge is
If you're not planning (or not required) to pack it out, the basic cat hole rules apply: dig a hole approximately 10-20cm deep and a good distance (100m / 300ft) away from water sources, into which you make your deposit. You
need a toilet trowel (plastic, folding titanium or otherwise) to dig this hole. It can easily be achieved using your heel, a stick, or a tent stake.
Without wanting to get too scatological, some of Clelland's suggestions for TP alternatives include Douglas Fir cones, leaves, smooth rocks and/or sticks, beard lichen, grass, or carefully sculpted snowballs (the ideal form of which can be found at the above link). Where possible, you should make every attempt to use dead (or at least inanimate) materials.
A far better choice for potty time: miles of unspoiled wilderness with ample topsoil
and handy materials just waiting to be soiled and spoiled.
After the cleansing process is complete, the wiping materials go into the hole, and you should then grab another stick and swirl it all around a bit. This helps with the decomposition of waste. Cover it up and away you go to wash your hands.
But wait… what if there's no topsoil?
This is a problem faced above tree line, which (unfortunately for me) means most of the best bits of Lapland. Although there is such a thing as the smear technique (advocated in Backpacking Light's book, I was surprised to see), it's pretty disgusting if you happen to come across evidence of somebody who's used this method. I'm not going to elaborate (I think you can use your imagination) as this is not a method I'd recommend. If you can't keep it in until you find a better spot (or a wilderness hut), the best practice is to pack it out. Bag it, bag it again, and then triple bag it for good measure and an odour-free trip. Oh, and one last thing, if you do use toilet paper, bio-degradable is the way to go.
With the business out of the way...
Remember to wash your hands
The main point to remember when cleaning up is this: hand sanitizer is not soap.
In recent years, it's become almost the norm to grab a gel or pump spray hand sanitizer when travelling in lieu of soap. It seems so convenient – a quick spray, a rub, and bye-bye bacteria. Unfortunately, hand sanitizer alone is rarely sufficient, and in worse cases can be detrimental to hygiene.
The problem is twofold. First, we tend not to use enough hand sanitizer to effectively kill bacteria (one quick spray is not enough). Second, adequate use of hand sanitizer (by which I mean using plenty, and regularly) can result in skin dehydration, which in turn can lead to cracked, bleeding skin, and if that happens, you've created the perfoect conditions for bacteria to thrive. This dry skin issue is casued by the alcohol content of most hand sanitizers.
But don't just take my word for it. There's an excellent article on Backpacking Light, "
" One comment from Kathy Hoffman on the post offers an excellent second opinion:
"I fell prey to the whole "hand sanitizers kill every germ known to man" fallacy. I used to use it routinely, until I ended up with a horrific rash, cracks, bleeding, and peeling skin that looked like leprosy. The doctor took one look at my hands and without me saying a word, exclaimed, "Use a lot of hand sanitizer, huh?" He then gave me the sage advice that only a seasoned medical professional could give. "Stop doing that.""
So what should we be using? In a word: soap.
Vigorous hand washing with concentrated soap is an effective, simple, and hygienic solution. There's no harm in using a hand sanitizer occasionally (after defecating, for example)
to soap and water. You don't need to get surgically clean, but its also good to disinfect your hands after, for example, filtering water, and to keep your eyes, nose, cuts and scrapes clean. The point is not to rely on sanitizer alone, but to use it in combination with a good, old fashioned wash'n'scrub.
Soap comes in many forms, but fortunately if we stick to concentrated versions, we don't need to carry much.
is popular in the US, but any concentrated liquid soap will perform the same function. I've used
with no issues. Repackaging in a small plastic vial or pot is the key to ultralight cleanliness.
Soap leaves are also a popular choice, but I find they are not always the best option. The packaging often weighs more than the soap, and if you touch the packaged leaves with wet hands, they turn into a big gooey mess. Of course, you can repackage them, but the wet hands issue remains. They also have a tendency to blow away in the slightest breeze.
Another alternative is to break out the mini bars of soap you stole the last time you stayed in a hotel. A half (or quarter) bar will provide more than enough soap for a few days away. However, I find that some of these soaps leave my hands feeling… a bit weird; both dry and slimey at the same time.
As for viable sanitizers that
dry out your hands,
. Although it is a little on the large size for a short trip, you could probably, with care, do a little repackaging.
Remember, when washing, to use filtered water on any areas with broken skin, or around eyes, nose, mouth or other orifices. There's little point taking all that care to filter water if you then go splashing unfiltered water in your eyes.
Bear in mind that rain water makes an excellent source of clean water: if you have to wipe down your shelter before heading off, you might as well make use of all that lovely clean water trapped in the sponge or towel.
Speaking of towels, I typically wash using just my hands (see Mike Clelland's
again for instructions of effective self-cleaning techniques), but a small, cut section of towel is usually sufficient for removing any stubborn grime.
are handy items for wiping down tents/shelters, washing, and drying. You could also use a bandana, but the microfiber material absorbs water brilliantly, and is easy to wring out and dry. I've read that some poeple use disposable kitchen towels (the thin material kind), but I've found them to be very non-absorbant, slow to dry, and quick to smell.
Women might find taking moist towelettes useful for quick hygienic cleansing purposes as many have an anti-bacterial content – just remember to repackage and take just the amount you need (it's unlikely you'll need 100 wipes in a weekend). (See also the links section at the end of this article for additional info.)
Incidentally, if you let your used wipes dry out in the sun, they make excellent firestarters (as does sanitizer containing alcohol). For more tips of feminine hygiene, check out the comments for the
Last but not least, remember to look for unscented soaps, sanitizer, and wipes should you be hiking in bear country and want to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention to your newly cleansed body.
What about washing clothes?
You know, on a short weekender, you really shouldn't need to do any laundry. However, for the sake of being complete, should such a crisis arise that you absolutely need to wash something, that spare ziploc bag you've been carrying comes in very handy. Put the offending item in the bag. Add some water. Sqish it around a few times. Rince and repeat as necessary. No soap is needed, and doing it in a bag away from water sources is far better than washing in a stream. Wring it out and leave it in the sun to dry (because, of course, it's going to be a lovely sunny day when you're hiking). With any luck it'll be dry before you get home.
If, like me, you are blighted by occasional bouts of athlete's foot, you'll probably want to take great care of your feet. Even if you are footloose and mushroom free, you should still respect your feet; all day long they serve your whims, taking you to all the places you want to go. They deserve a little pampering.
Whenever possible, I like to take off my shoes and socks, give my feet some breathing room, and if possible a dunk them in a cooling, refreshing stream. Even if I don't get the chance to do this during the day, it's absolutely essential to give feet some air at the end of the day – especially if you've been walking in wet trail runners for hours. I always give my feet some extended exposure to fresh air before putting on my fluffy, dry night socks.
I've read various techniques that different people swear by for foot protection, ranging from applying anti-perspirants regularly on the days preceding a hike, and again once a day while hiking, to applying Hydropel or
to your feet to avoid pruning and blisters. While Hydropel is espoused by the Jordans and Clellands of the world, the
I've found that – since switching to breathable, non-waterproof inov-8 trail shoes, and hiking in thin socks (with wet feet as necessary) – I've not had a single blister, and have never needed ointments or unguents. However, your foot requirements and milage may vary.
As with washing clothes in general, it's unlikely that on a short trip you'll need to wash your socks, but if you find, at the end of the day, that your socks are beginning to resemble cardboard, a nighttime wash might be worth it.
Someone asked me the other day about taking their cosmetics with them while hiking. I joked about repackaging them, but I think you know what I'm going to say now: you don't need them in the wilderness. You're beautiful just the way you are. We all are. Warts and all.
Is that all?
Well, just about. There remains the matter of where to put all this stuff...
correctly points out that the thing you carry all these little essentials in shouldn't weigh more than all of them combined. I'd go further and say that it shouldn't weigh more than one of them alone (with the possible exception of a toothpaste dot).
A medium-sized ziploc bag is perfect for containing all the little odds and ends you need while away. Sure, you can use a nice cuben fiber stuff sack if you want, but the ziploc has one very special advantage: it's transparent. You'd be amazed what a timesaver this can be when you're trying to hunt for that ibuprofen tablet you know is in there
The ditty bag (for that is its name) contains everything mentioned above, and a host of other miscellaneous items. It's up to you to decide what you may (or may not) need on any given trip.
Such items might include (but absolutely not be limited to):
- lip balm
- sun block
- sportsick (handy for blisters, chafing, athlete's foot, jock itch)
- talc (I occasionally use Gold Bond Menthol for many of the same reasons that Sportslick addresses)
- bug repellant
- first aid kit (which we'll be looking at more in the next installment)
- multi knife
- emergency matches / lighter
- super glue (for fixing things, but also for first aid properties)
- spare batteries
- spare cord
The ditty bag has quite a cult following, and it can be of enormous geek interest to take a peek into the contents of another hiker's bag. Take, for example,
to compare and contrast.
The aim, of course, is to take only what you need, without jeopardising your safety and enjoyment.
So, to summarize, all you need to carry your small essentials is a simple ziploc bag.
I mean seriously, what kind of idiot would want to carry a heavy, dedicated bag with an integrated mirror?
What does Backpacking North use?
I began by carrying a heavy, dedicated bag with an integrated mirror. At the time I thought I was being very clever as the bag was a lot smaller than the giant washbag I usually took on holiday. This one even had a metal hook, and folded away very ingeniously to become no larger than a chihuahua. It had more compartments inside than most of my current backpacks. Even though I never shave while backpacking, it never occurred to me to remove the mirror. You can only imagine the junk I used to put inside it.
After a few iterations of ultralight refinement, I'm somewhere near the examples I've set out in writing above – but I'm not going to lie, there are areas here where I could still improve, and other areas in which I show a flagrant disregard for ultralight principles.
I carry everything in a clear ziploc. I have a several first aid kits from which I select the most appropriate for the length of trip I'm planning. I tend to agree with Andrew Skurka that there is no point taking first aid equipment if you don't know how to use it, so I generally leave the defibrillator at home and stick to band aids and an assortment of smaller emergency nicknacks for short trips.
I carry repackaged
soap, but rarely sanitizer. For a toothbrush, I take a complete
. Why? Laziness basically. I've ran out of toothpaste drops, and not got around to making more. The Toob toothpaste tube can be easily refilled, and it holds about enough for 8 days hiking. It weighs 41g, which is a lot more than the 5 or 6 grams of a fingertip toothbrush, and in all honesty it's really not ideal. It's hard to clean the tube, and it gets pretty gunky after a while.
I don't carry floss, for no other reason than I am extremely lax in using it. Don't follow my example, kids. You probably wouldn't want my English teeth.
I generally carry toilet paper, typically rolling some around my hand a few times, guesstimating how much I might need, and keeping it in a separate ziploc in the front pocket of my pack. I'm not averse to using nature's fine produce to clean my nether regions, but if possible I like to take advantage of Finland's fine wilderness cabin toilets (after all, I pay high taxes for the privy privilege), or burn the paper, leaving packing out as a last resort. In winter I'm happy to use snow, but for much of the time the snow is too dry, and I'm loathe to start sculpting perfec cone-shaped snow wipes -20ºC.
I generally don't worry too much about getting dirty, but I always have my bandana and/or a small piece of microfiber towel should I need it.
As mentioned, if it's hot I often carry a small amount of
for awkward and annoying itches (because nothing spoils a hike faster than sore toes or a sweaty, itchy crotch).
I rarely use lip balm, but often carry it (
). I tend to use it more in winter (
). I find most of the time I don't need it, but I know that sometimes my lips dry out when spending 24 hours a day outdoors. It would probably be wiser of me to protect my lips form the elements by applying more often, but I'm a lazy so-and-so.
Lastly, I don't use any Hydropel or equivalents on my feet, which might explain the rough skin.
So, there you have it. I suspect we all follow advice and health recommendations to varying degrees of adherence, at least until the recommendations become doctor's orders. Oddly enough, you don't see many posts on blogs dealing with health and hygiene – perhaps because it doesn't make for great or entertaining reading; perhaps because nobody wants to admit to secretly burying their toilet paper or discussing their bowel movements. Either way, that is the reason for the absence of a "what do other people do" section. Instead, I have integrated as many links as possible into the main body of the post, and there are some addtional links listed below for further reading.
I'm sure there are areas that I've not covered, or not thought of – and once again, please, feminine hygienists, bring it on in the comments. Indeed, if there is anything you'd like to add to the subject, please feel free to comment.
- includes section on feminine hygiene
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:
Part 8 of a 12-part series in which Backpacking North analyzes
magazine's recommendations to reduce your pack weight, and offers a more comprehensive selection of tips and gear recommendations from hiking blogs and experienced ultralight bloggers.
had so little to say on the matter of dressing down, we might as well quote them in full:
"Thru-hiker Jack Haskel limits his three-season layering system to pants, a tee, a puffy, a shell, one pair of underwear–and, um, no deodorant. He cautions not to go too light on the shell for alpine travel." With raingear, a few ounces can mean a much safer hike." Our pick: First Ascent's BC-200 ($199, 11oz).
So what does
mean by dressing down? At first I thought they were going to recommend only using down clothing, but fortunately what they are actually talking about is carrying less clothing, which is perfectly smart advice. A pity, then, that their only recommendation is the First Ascent BC-200 – a jacket which, while fairly well received, is far from a popular choice amongst ultralighters.
Recommending clothing, however, is such a complex issue; advice rests on far too many unstable variables: local geographical, climactic, and meteorological conditions, personal preferences, body types, gender. With clothing – more so, perhaps than with any other of the
series – personal circumstances will significantly influence the choices you make, which makes writing a useful guide for all circumstances particularly difficult.
Is there any point, then, in going into detail at all? If we assume that we share some general need for clothing on the trail (naked hikers can move on unhindered), and if we limit the discussion to clothing required for a moderate temperate climate (i.e. let's say three-season temperatures between 5ºC/40ºF and 25ºC/80ºF; anything outside that and you can add/remove items as necessary) then I think we can look at some generalised clothing concepts and make some broad recommendations.
In previous editions of this series, I've included a section looking at what other bloggers are using. For the reasons outlined above, this would be nigh-on impossible task for clothing. Instead, I'll try to pick out a few items that regularly crop up in reviews and reports, or highlight items that have achieved some level of near-universal acclaim.
Layering is, of course, the fundamental, tried-and-tested approach to selecting clothing for any hiking, backpacking, bikepacking, packrafting or other outdoor activity. Layering involves adding and/or removing differently-purposed clothing layers comprising breathable, wicking, insulating, and water resistant properties.
With ultralight layering, the process and technique remains exactly the same; the difference lies in the weights of items worn, and in the diligence needed to cut out unnecessary or ineffective items that only add weight to the pack.
In warmer climates, a bare minimum might consist of a base layer and some kind of waterproof or water-resistant layer. Those hiking in cooler climates will need to carry more layers to give additional flexibility when facing harsher, less predictable weather.
In the simplest configuration, it's possible to limit the number of layers we need to just three:
- base layer
- insulation layers (including mid-layers and insulating layers)
- shell layers (including windproof and waterproof layers)
In most locations that might fall into our arbitrary definition of moderate temperate climates, I think it's fair to say that it would be wise at the very least to have one item representing each of those categories in order to form a complete clothing system. In cooler climates or conditions, it will likely be necessary to carry more than one insulation layer, and both wind and waterproof shells. Fortunately, modern materials mean carrying appropriate additional clothing to meet the needs of your environment will not impact the weight of your pack significantly. A light down jacket can weighing just 180g / 6oz provides enough warmth on a cold evening to make it an essential item. Similarly, a windshirt weighing just 115g / 4oz will have but the tiniest impact on your scales, but will be enormously welcome in exposed spots or during a light shower.
These are items which it simply
to carry. In my opinion, the larger problem we face is not what we should take, but what we shouldn't...
Cutting down on the other stuff
Whenever I return form a trip, I make sure I assess the clothing I took with me, and make note of any items which were not worn or used. Often, when we load our backpacks, we hastily pack clothing to cover every eventuality, and end up only wearing half of it. While some of these items might be necessary (taking and not wearing a waterproof shell because it doesn't rain is perfectly acceptable), you will soon learn to identify other items that are redundant: their intended purpose is already covered by other clothing that you actually
As an example, on a recent trip to
, I knew from the weather forecast that it would be cold. I diligently packed a base layer, insulating mid layer, light down puffy, and rain jacket. Then, "just in case" I packed my
– a perfectly fine fleece hoodie that I often wear at home when the morning temps are chilly. I was worried it might get really cold at night, and that I might not have enough layers without it. So in it went.
Now, much as I like the Hangfire, it's not a small top: 457g / 16oz, and quite bulky, as is typical for fleece.
I never wore it once.
I think we often forget that when we are outside 24 hours a day our bodies adjust to the cooler temperatures quite quickly. I was plenty warm enough in my merino tee and grid-fleece mid layer. One cold morning I discovered, after hiking a few kilometres, that I was still wearing my down jacket under my rain coat. At no point, even on the coldest night, did I even think about putting on the Hangfire. It was 457g of dead weight for the whole trip, which just goes to prove we all make mistakes.
Now I know this, I won't be taking the Hangfire on any three-season trips again (winter is another matter; it makes a great snowshoeing top).
There might be some people out there thinking, "Oh, Mark, you really are a silly arse," but trust me, a fleece hoodie is the least of your worries when trying to skip what you really don't need.
So what don't I need to take?
If I catch anyone on the trail carrying the following items, you will be summarily chastised in the sternest fashion:
- Spare shirts - you absolutely don't need any "spare" clothing for short trips. You're allowed to smell to high heaven, it's part of getting back to nature.
- Spare underwear - ditto spare underwear: if you're getting, ahem, skanky down there, give your undies a rinse, and "freshen up"
- Deodorant - okay, so it's not clothing, but I agree with Backpacker on this: deo is unnecessary weight.
- Spare trousers - if you're wearing smart clothing that dries quickly, there's no point carrying spare trousers.
- Spare socks - not necessary, with the exception of a separate pair of "night socks"
- Pyjamas - see "long johns" below for night attire if you need them.
- Jeans - do I really need to say this? Outside of a desert, there's no excuse for wearing cotton of any kind, let alone jeans.
- Leather jackets - you may laugh, but in Käsivarsi Wilderness Area I saw one guy who had carried in his leather jacket.
- Wellington boots - popular in Finland, I have no idea why.
- Camp shoes - redundant weight. If your shoes and feet are wet in camp, change into waterproof socks
- Non-waterproofed rain gear - if you don't re-treat your rain gear with DWR, there's no point in taking it.
Okay, then. What do I really need?
Before we address that, let's reiterate the need for making appropriate choices according to environment, climate, and your body type, mainly so I don't have to write "depending on your environment, climate, and body type" before every paragraph. Only you know what you might need.
With that said, let's make a comprehensive list of clothing for a three-season weekender in varying conditions. You won't need every item on every trip, but the idea is that this should be enough to most conditions:
- Hat (a peak or brim is useful - i.e. baseball, cadet, fishing - but a bandana is multi-purpose)
- Torso base layer
- Torso insulation - mid layer (i.e. microgrid-fleece)
- Torso insulation - jacket (i.e. light down/synthetic puffy)
- Windshirt (highly breathable, water resistant)
- Rain jacket (somewhat breathable, supposedly waterproof)
- Gloves (liners at least, possibly also waterproof mitts)
- Long johns (optional, but good to have in cold, wet climates for night)
- Hiking Pants (a.k.a. Trousers; quick drying, water resistant ideally)
- Waterproof rain pants (optional, but good in cold, wet climates)
- Hiking socks (one pair only)
- Sleep socks (one pair only)
- Waterproof socks (worn in camp only, can also use plastic bags)
- Shoes (light trail shoes, see Ultralight Makeover: Redux, Pt 12)
- Gaiters (optional)
- AND NOTHING ELSE!
Let's look at each item in more detail, and see what
and others are using.
Hats are great. They keep you warm, and make you look cool.
Well, not always. But even in summer, it's smart to take a hat of some sort: either for warmth at night, or to keep the sun out of your eyes, and bugs out of your hair. A brimmed-cap (baseball or cadet-style, for example) is great when used in conjunction with a headnet - the peak keeps the netting off your face.
Buffs or bandanas are also good options and true multi-use items. The cunning ultralighter will find uses for a bandana as a hat, pot holder, rehydrated meal insulator, hand towel, tourniquet, water or coffee filter, stuff sack... I'm sure there are many more uses.
For wet, cold, and windy conditions, something more insulating might be advantageous, and if you're expecting cold nights, a down beanie or hood (especially if sleeping in a quilt) is pretty much essential.
If your other torso layers are hooded, carrying a separate hat might be overkill. A hooded base, mid and (possibly) puffy might well be enough – and hooded layers have other benefits: not only are they always at hand (or at least, at neck), ready to be pulled up when you need them, but they give you better all-around protection from wind and draughts.
Being a gentlemen of the bald persuasion, I often find myself carrying several hats. For general use I wear a cadet style cap for general use; it keeps the sun off my head and out my eyes, and offers a little bug protection. If things get really bad I just throw the headnet on top. My hat of choice is a
(59g / 2oz), and I bought it because I was convinced I would look as awesome in it as Jaakko and Thomas. Sadly I seem to be the recipient of a earlier design that makes me look like
I often carry a very thin Haglöfs polartec microfleece cap with me. It weighs just 28g / 1oz, but is surprisingly warm and perfect at night or on chilly mornings.
. If it's going to be really cold I take a
fleece beanie. It's pretty much the only hat I wear below about -5C / 23F, unless it's
cold and I need a down hood on top of that.
Talking of down hoods, until recently I've been taking the removable hood of my Halti winter down jacket with me. While it's not designed to be used separately from the jacket, it works pretty well on it's own by tying the pull cords under my chin. It's an improvised solution that has the unfortunate side effect of making me look (even more) like a dork.
I've since bought a
. It's a much more stylish, lighter solution which
finally convinced me was worth investing in. (27g / 1oz).
. I don't think it's much good for winter; the stitch through design and light fill create areas where the cold creeps through. But as a cap for three-season nights inside a shelter, it's just about right.
Hats a such an individual item it's hard to find a lot of consensus about which ones are best. The Jolly Green Giant has a
, recommending the venerable
For microfleece hats, you can pretty much pick and choose anything from your favourite retailer.
Torso Base Layer
For summer use, a light merino tee makes an ideal base layer. For cooler seasons, a long-sleeved merino hoodie offers a little more warmth, flexibility, and the benefit of a built in hood. Unfortunately, lightweight merino hoodies are sometimes hard to find. For some reason manufactures have a tendency to discontinue them just as word is getting around. So if you find one you like, seize the day.
Although the properties of merino are well known – warm in cool weather, cool in warm, no unpleasant odours in any – I personally find merino's cooling ability to be a little overrated. There's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a synthetic base layer instead of merino if that suits you (and your wallet) better. Sure, you'll probably end up a little more aromatic than with merino, but what happens on the trail, stays on the trail – hopefully downwind.
The choice between a tee and a hoodie has some influence upon the need for a mid layer. I like the combination of a tee and long-sleeved mid layer. It offers a good range of ventilation options and is very adaptable to the relatively wide temperature ranges I can expect during what I hesitantly call summer in Lapland. Other people in different climates might simply use a single layered tee or hoodie instead.
My go-to merino tee is an older model Icebreaker 150g/m2, probably now the
for the ladies). Mine doesn't have the biking bells and whistles of the new version, but it's a simple top that hasn't let me down. It dries very fast, the half chest zip is good for venting, and the small raised neck gives a little sun protection. It is, to give Icebreaker a free marketing quote, the shirt that keeps on going. Mine weighs 195g / 6.8oz.
For cooler weather, there was only one lightweight, hooded, long-sleeved merino top that any serious ultralighter coveted more than Jame Gumb coveted a nice big girl suit: the Backpacking Light Beartooth Merino Hoodie. And I say "coveted" intentionally as it was hardly ever in stock, and then they closed the store (
). Balaclava style hood, thumb loops, zipper, 150g/m2. It was perfect.
But fear not, I've trawled the web (all of it, even the naughty bits) and found a replacement that ticks almost all of the same boxes: the I/O Bio Merino Contact Glory Hoodie. Zip? Check! 150g/m2? Almost! (160g/m2). Thumb loops? You betcha! Balaclava style hood? Not exactly... More gimp...
But hey, it's cheaper ($90 / €70), and they ship worldwide for $10. Unfortunately the website is "unusual" so I can't link to it directly, and I/O Merino have a habit of changing designs and names frewuently.
There are more available alternatives out there, albeit heavier ones. The
is the likliest contender, and meets all the requirements (zip, thumb loops et al) at a respectable – and probably harder wearing – 195 g/m2. There's also
Going against all received wisdom, in hot, dry climates, cotton is useful as it stays wet for a long time, thus cooling you down. In humid areas, a looser, synthetic shirt might be more pleasant, and Rohan have a popular range for
. Paramo also have some for
. Rohan's have been worn by people like Stephen Fry, while Chris Townsend likes Paramo. You be the judge of cool. Of course neither Rohan nor Paramo are readily available outside the UK, but there a about a gazillion different big-name "outdoor" brands making similar clothing (Patagonia, North Face, REI, Columbia etc).
Insulation / Mid Layers
One man's base layer might be another woman's mid layer, and that woman's mid layer might be a person of non-descript gender identification's insulation. It's all so confusing, these days.
To complicate matters, many mid layers might be marketed (with perfect validity) as base layers or even shells. I'm of the opinion that it becomes a mid layer when you use it as a mid layer, not when someone tells you it is or isn't.
To simplify this confusing state of affairs, we can generalise, and lump all things you put on top of your base layer, and which would go under something waterproof in rain, as
. On a basic level that's what every item of clothing is doing in this role; insulating you, adding warmth.
Now, again I have to reiterate that I'm talking about cooler three-season climates when I discuss adding an insulating layer while hiking. Those in warmer climates will no doubt manage fin with just a base layer.
As an initial barrier against cold while carrying a backpack, it makes sense to add a fairly durable layer over your base layer. Generally, the heat generated through exertion while hiking makes wearing warmer down or synthetic insulation a poor choice – it's simply too hot, you end up sweating, and then end up changing rapidly from too hot to too cold.
I would rarely hike wearing a down puffy (unless through negligence), and instead choose a micro grid fleece top. Fleece is often frowned upon for it's bulky compression and weight, but a thin micro grid fleece works well as a very flexible insulating in cooler environments. These tops have a "grid" or "waffle" of fleece which aids moisture transportation and ventilation on the inside, and a smoother, non-piling finish on the outside: perfect for wearing under a backpack.
Without a doubt, the classic example of this is the Patagonia R1 Hoody (
). It is undoubtedly a very nice piece of kit. Polartec power dry means it dries fast. Hood. Thumb loops. Chest pocket. Long body so it doesn't rise up. 325g / 11.5oz. The downside? Have a guess... (hint: it's a Patagonia). Yep, it costs $150. For a fleece. If you're extremely lucky you'll catch one on sale, but they sell out fast.
There are alternatives which are just as good, even if they lack the street cred: the
), or the excellent
. I also have a
version that I picked up from my local supermarket here in Rovaniemi for about €40 a few years ago. It's perfectly fine. The moral of this story, if you hadn't guessed, is that you don't always have to throw money at the big brands to get good enough gear. I make it a habit to hunt out potentially decent clothing from obscure places and save money – and fleece is one area you should be able to do that with ease.
To get back on point, any of these articles of coshing will make a fine insulating mid-layer, which can double as a base layer, Many even have a little DWR treatment so they serve as an occasional shell. (Fleece tops are exceptionally good for cold, wet climates, such as I am experiencing on an all too regular basis in Lapland this year). And again, a micro fleece with a hood might mean you can skip taking a hat. Look for the half-zip on the chest – it aids dramatically with venting on strenuous sections of the trail.
How about an alternative to fleece? The
has been getting
in the last year. It even got a
. Is there anyone who doesn't have one? I have one and find it an odd piece of kit. Not particularly windproof. Not really water resistant. Thin. A bit loose fitting with long arms. Light-ish, and cheap-ish (300g / 11oz, £45). Others swear by it though, so don't just take my opinion.
Now, onto the hot stuff: lovely, fluffy, puffy, outer insulation.
Even in summer, I never hit the trail without my super-light down jacket. I'm not talking about hardcore winter jackets capable of coping with -20ºC, but down jackets that serve, essentially, as ultralight pullovers (or "jumpers" as we Brits like to call them). These are great to wear when you stop high up, at night when temps drop, or while making your morning oats.
I don't consider a hood to be essential for a three-season jacket – quite the opposite. I use down, even in the damp of Lapland; if it rains I just throw my waterproof jacket on top. A down-filled hood would be the first thing to get wet from rain ingress, and that's undesirable. Of course, there are some very good synthetic puffy alternatives available, too, and these would provide some warmth while wet, but frankly, just because you can let it get wet doesn't mean you should. Better to let hats and hoodies keep your head warm.
I use a
(180g / 6.3oz) and am extremely happy with it. If there's a down side (boom-ching) it's that the jacket is a little short, presumably to keep the weight as low as possible. On a positive note,
Alternatives are the
(a slightly heavier 226g / 8oz), the
down shirt (270g / 9.5oz.,
, hooded versions also available if you dare), the current ultralight champion,
(167g / 5.9oz). (For the lowdown on down, see Backpacking Light's 2010 state of the market report, much of which is still current information. Links can be found at the end of the article).
Synthetic materials make an excellent choice for a insulating puffy layer, especially in wet areas, and most manufactures offer a synthetic version of their down jackets. The
(hooded) is popular, weighing around 390g / 13oz, and also comes
range is not uncommon and gets multiple rave reviews on Backpacking Light, but by far the most popular, rightly or wrongly, is the
(289g / 10.2oz), also
Wind- and Water-proof Shells
Nothing cools you quicker than a cold, hard wind. Couple that with rain and, unless you have the right protective gear, you've bought yourself a one-way ticket to hypothermia.
First, we should clarify what we mean by wind- and water-proof shells. A wind-proof jacket (or wind shirt) is a highly breathable top which blocks a significant amount of wind. They usually have some level of water repellency to cope with light showers. They dry very quickly, weigh very little, and are made of super-lightweight materials (such as Pertex) that scrunch up to a tiny size no bigger than your fist.
Waterproof jackets are less breathable – while new fabrics such as eVent and PacLite are breathable, no material can be both fully waterproof and fully breathable – but, like wind shirts, block the wind. They are, as you might imagine, more waterproof. But you should always take claims of waterproofing with a pinch of salt. No jacket will keep you totally dry in sustained rain; the point will come when either seams or zips start leaking, or the jacket loses the battle between trying to be breathable and waterproof, and you find yourself getting wet from perspiration. However, a good rain jacket will keep you pretty dry. Today's ultralight raincoats weigh very little, although the lighter and flimsier they get, the more likely they will not be up to extreme conditions. You can't have everything.
For a long time I never carried a wind shirt – I felt that as a raincoat offers protection from rain
wind, there was no need for a separate garment. While there is some truth to this, the breathability of a wind shirt so far surpasses that of a rain jacket that I find myself carrying one pretty much all the time. Sure, they don't add much warmth, but they do reduce loss of heat through convection. In some climates, you might be able to hike happily with only a base layer and a wind shirt for backup. I take on e to put on top of my mid-layer insulation on colder, windy days, or when I'm expecting light showers.
Another reason to take one is bug protection. Mosquitoes and other midges can't bite through the fabrics, so they make great camp wear in buggy locations. Most wind shirts are hooded, and I think this is a smart thing to look for when buying: as well as keeping your head warm, it offers additional bug-proofing.
I use a
(170g / 6oz) which has for many years been the most popular wind-proof top available.
, as does
. There's also an H20 version which is more waterproof.
The other contender for "most popular windshirt of all time" is the
(76g / 2.6oz), which is officially crazy-light. Reviews are aplenty (
, for starters), and I think I've seen Joe flirting with one behind the LiteSpeed's back. Tsk tsk tsk.
Andrew Skurka (how come we got so far without mentioning The Skurk?) espouses a
(103g / 4oz) in his excellent
. However it seems to be currently unavailable. Another popular alternative is the
Backpacking Light have just started another "state of the market"
, which includes the Rab Boreas (see above). I find that a little odd as it isn't really windproof at all, but they seem to like it.
Incidentally, just the other day I read that Mont-Bell are binging out the world's lightest wind shirt: a re-designed Tachyon at 45g/1.6oz. Soon they'll be lighter than the air they're protecting you from.
recommends not skimping on rain gear for alpine climates. I agree – rain gear is probably the most critical three-season clothing item you'll purchase. When it comes to waterproof shells, your best bet is to keep it simple. If you want to up the ante against stormy weather, you want to simplify the jacket. The more zippers, pockets, and seams there are, the more potential the garment has to let water seep through. Some designs, for example, do away with the front zip and have just a half-length, chest zip, and no pockets. Ventilation is performed by breathable fabrics such as eVent, and aided on less breathable garments by pit zips (zippers under the arms than can be unzipped to allow better ventilation under exertion).
Other things you should look for: a good hood that doesn't collapse on your face, and directs the water away from you. Cuffs that don't wet out immediately. A long body that doesn't rise up while wearing a backpack – a perennial problem with hip belts - and which sends water flowing down low enough over your rain pants so that it doesn't find a way in at your waist. If you must have a full-length zip, and live in a storm-prone area, think about storm flaps on your zipper; "waterproof" zips are not all they're cracked up to be. On lighter jackets, check the seams are well taped, or better still, welded. Another good thing to check is the position of any pockets (if you must have them): they can often be obscured by your pack's shoulder straps.
The amount of rain protection you need depends on how much sustained precipitation you are likely to encounter, and your hiking style. If you plan to hike all day in the Nordic rain (also known as "summer") you should invest in an appropriately storm-worthy shell. For occasional rain, there are numerous lighter alternatives that may well be good enough. For dryer areas of rare precipitation, the need for rain gear is questionable, especially with today's quick-drying fabrics.
Talking of fabrics, there are many that will dazzle you with their groovy pseudo-scientific nomenclature.
- Gore-Tex (including the recently developed Paclite and ActiveShell)
- eVent (highly breathable, expensive)
- Polyurethane (cheaper alternatives i.e. Marmot MemBrain, Patagonia H2No, Mountain Hardwear Conduit)
- Polypropylene (Frogg Toggs, light and fragile)
- Paramo (a world unto themselves)
- Greenland Wax (Fjall Raven, messy, tedious)
- NeoShell (Polartec's whizz bang new fabric)
Of the lot of them, eVent is currently the most highly regarded. NeoShell, I feel, needs a little more time before it's virtues can be fully extolled, but it shows promise, and Chris Townsend has
"the most breathable membrane I've ever tried."
For many years I've opted for the middle ground, and have been satisfied with my
(240g / 6.8oz). I like the reinforced areas on the shoulders and hip, and the clever positioning of the pockets so they are accessible with a pack on. The pit zips are long and helpful. The hood is decent enough. The only problems I've had are the cuffs wetting out very quickly, and it's a touch on the short side.
While the Mica has been good to me, I've recently betrayed it and upped my protection to an eVent
(283g / 10oz). I wanted a Haglofs Ozo, but they don't make them anymore. And now, it seems, they also don't make the Demand anymore, even though it received a swathe of support from ultralighters:
has a review, and Roger convinced me of its (storm)worthiness. Instead, check out the
is also popular with Backpacking Light readers. At
370g / 13oz, and currently on sale from $60, (
) it's a much cheaper solution.
Whatever your waterproof,, though, remember to keep it clean and re-apply any DWR coatings regularly. eVent's resilience in particular is affected by grime, but any material benefits from a re-application of Nikwax or appropriate equivalent.
For further, in-depth information, check out this great
. There is also additional reading material at the end of this article.
While in some places gloves might be overkill for summer, I always carry at least a thin pair of liner gloves, just in case the nights turn chilly. But I find gloves difficult items to be fully satisfied with – I have so many pairs of different weights and differing properties, I often end up taking several pairs pairs with me – perhaps unnecessarily. First, I pack the liner gloves, which are great for fending off slight chills. But then... what if it gets very cold? Maybe I should pack my slightly warmer fleece or power dry gloves? And what about wind? A nice pair of windproof gloves could come in handy (ho ho) up on the exposed high ground. Ah, but what if it rains? Dammit! Better take a pair of waterproof mitts too...
Before long I've got a sack full of gloves I don't need. The windproof gloves would probably be the best choice. These are usually windproof only on the back of the hand, and are otherwise simple and light. For rain, some people like to use waterproof rain mitts, but I tend to either take my gloves off or pull my rain jacket sleeves down over my hands.
What gloves do I use? I honestly don't know. I tend to pick up pairs from the supermarket without worrying too much about it. I had a great pair of Craft gloves made out of some kind of power dry material that were pretty good. Along the way I've tried generic gloves from REI (liners that felt warm, but were not), First Ascent (sticky rubber palms, quite nice; alas, they fell apart), Halti (too thin for Halti, and one finger mysteriously melted), Haestra (ok-ish), Icepeak (waterproof gloves, but I doubt they really are waterproof), the list goes on and on...
that I have my eye on.
make a huge range of gloves that I get dizzy and confused just looking at. Roger had a pair of
that looked good, so I ordered a pair to try and keep up with the Browns. He also had a pair of
, which he didn't rate that highly, and The Skurk concurs (p.62,
). The seams need to be sealed on them, which I think many people forget. To be honest, I wonder if it wouldn't be smarter to make a pair of MYOG Tyvek rain mitts and glue them together. The pattern would be easy-peasy; even a ham-fisted klutz such as myself should be able to manage it. On the other hand (as it were),
are breathable, fully taped, and come in at just 12.8g / 0.45oz for a pair, but you'll pay the price for the ultimate in ultralight: they cost a whopping $95. Unfortunately they are also unavailable at this time. A slightly cheaper, slightly heavier pair are available from
(23g / 0.8oz), or you could always
One quick-drying pair of underwear in your favourite style (boxers, briefs, kinky stuff) is all you need for short trips, and arguably all you need for longer trips too. After a couple of days use, just give them a good rinse in water and stick them somewhere warm to dry overnight (i.e. next to your body in your sleeping bag or quilt). If they don't dry you have two choices: wear them to dry them as you walk, or attach them to your pack to dry as you go commando through the wilderness.
that dry amazingly quickly. In Halti I washed them one day and they didn't dry overnight. I followed my excellent advice and tried to dry them on my pack, but it was damp and raining so that didn't work out so well. When it eventually stopped raining, I simply put the damp boxers on, and within 30 minutes they were dry again.
If you prefer merino undies,
As I was frolicking around admiring the internet's numerous underwear sites, I realised I have no information about the delicate needs of women in these matters. If any of my female readers have advice for the women of the world, please chime in in the comments.
Legs: Base Layer
I can't think of any occasion in any climate where I've felt the need to wear a base layer on my legs while hiking in spring, summer or autumn. Legs generate plenty of heat while walking to negate the need for any mid- or base-layers.
However, in cooler conditions, I'll usually carry a pair of merino long johns to wear at night. If it's wet and cold, changing into a pair of dry leggings is a little nighttime luxury I'm willing to burden as extra pack weight. Of course, they also provide extra warmth, extending the range of my quilt. They're not absolutely necessary, and often I'll just wear my hiking trousers at night. But if I'm expecting extended rain and cold, and I want to keep by down bag dry, and be toasty warm, I'll bring them along. I use a pair of
from the local sports shop, which I was surprised to find are lighter (186g / 6.5oz) than the popular
You say pants, I say trousers. Call 'em what you will – there's really not much more to say about them, except you certainly don't need to carry a spare pair.
In temperatures above around 13ºC / 55ºF I've been using a pair of
split trekking pants which I like very much. I picked them up from
on the spur of the moment, and as luck would have it they are light and extremely quick to dry. It there's light rainfall I usually don't bother to add waterproofs as they'll often dry as I'm walking. They're a real bargain (around $60) compared to other brands and come highly recommended for three-season use.
I recently picked up a pair of Haglöfs Lite Fjell pants from the outlet store in Haparanda. I'd provide a link, but the problem with Haglöfs is that they change their kit so often it's hard to keep up . The Lite Fjell Pants, as far as I can tell, no longer exist (hence the lack of a link), and that's okay because, frankly, the pockets are badly thought out with no zip on the front ones, and a vertical zip on the rear ones. I can see why they might have thought a vertical zip was a clever idea: if you want to access them while wearing a thick hip belt it's easier to unzip them. But its far too easy for things to fall out, making both sets of pockets next to useless.
I wouldn't discount all Haglöfs trousers on one bad experience, though. I have one heavier pari which have lasted me years. I have no idea what model they are, but from what I can see the closest current version is a
(485g / 17oz). Mine weigh 544g / 19oz, which I know is not light, but they are the epitome of rugged, with a
of flexible thrown in, and a DWR finish to round it off. I'll wear them hiking from September through to May or June in Lapland.
Perhaps the most popular pair or pants/trousers are
(320g 11.2oz), which are especially common amongst UK ultralighters, and I've had my eye on a pair for a long time. If you do order a pair, be warned that the regular leg length is on the short side, and the long leg is a much sought-after rare beast. I have one criticism of the Terras: the serious lack of pockets. There are no thigh nor rear pockets, which I often find frustrating.
In Halti, Roger was wearing a pair of
which were remarkable: the water repellancy was amazing. After crossing streams they were bone dry,and yet they are breathable and light as a feather. Unfortunately they are, along with everything else BPL produced, no longer available, but hopefully some other manufacturer will pick up the baton.
As for waterproof trousers, you might ask, "Are rain pants necessary for three-season hiking?" As ever, it would be nice to give a clear cut yes or no answer to that question. The best we can do is offer "it depends..." For summer weekenders you can make a fairly accurate assessment of the likely weather conditions, and have a pretty good idea of how wet you might potentially be at the end of the day.
There have been plenty of situations where I've carried waterproof trousers, enjoyed dry weather, and regretted carrying pointless weight. On other occasions, I've ended up walking in the rain and just managed in my hiking pants. This is fine if you have a pair of quick-drying or water resistant trousers, encounter only occasional showers, and hike where it's warm enough for the material to dry as you continue on the trail. It's another matter entirely if you end up walking in persistent rain in cooler temperatures, arriving cold, wet, and miserable in camp.
An example: on my recent
, I walked in my Columbia pants, letting them get wet in the irregular (but quite heavy) showers. I knew at the end of the day I'd stay in a wilderness hut and get a fire going. As it turned out, the rain stopped an hour or so before the hut, and the pants were already dry when I got there (my socks, however, which I didn't realise were mostly cotton, took a
In contrast, in
, the rain was continuous, and rain pants were essential. Higher altitude, lower temperatures, and sleeping under the DuoMid meant if I got wet, I'd stay wet (or have to cut the trip short).
While taking rain pants is optional (depending on circumstances), today's highly breathable pants are also lightweight enough to include under the "might as well take them anyway" category.
For the last few years I've been using a pair of
(Short Zip) rain pants (268g / 9.4oz), and for the most part they've been pretty good. The zip aids in slipping them over trail shoes, and breathability / waterproofness has generally been fine. Only under extended use have they begun to leak around the hip-belt area, but I suspect that any pair of waterproof trousers is susceptible in areas of heavy contact with one's backpack. They're okay, but I wanted to improve on them.
had been getting some good comments, so I indulged in a pair. They are eVent, weigh 275g / 10oz, and are simple: no pockets, but they do have a leg zip. It's early days, but so far I like them.
Rain pants are probably not the most exciting gear purchases you'll make (which accounts for the chronic lack of reviews and impassioned arguments online), but if you live somewhere where rain stops being enjoyable and starts to get seriously depressing, a decent pair of rain pants might save your sanity and stop you from turning around and heading home.
Even more exciting than rain pants on the clothing ecstasy scale are socks.
If you're wearing trail runners or similar lightweight, non-waterproof, quick drying shoes (and let's assume that you are for the moment –if you're not then Part 12 of this guide will be of particular interest to you, assuming I ever finish this part and get on with the rest of my life) then a pair of short, quick drying socks are ideal.
There are proponents of synthetic materials, merino, or a combination of the two. To summarize the difference between the two:
- synthetics: quick to dry, not warm when wet
- merino: slower to dry, warm when wet
I've worn synthetic socks quite happily for some years now. In the past I wore slightly heavier merino socks. They were lovely and comfy but didn't dry so well. After getting into trail runners more, I switched to thinner
synthetics. They dry very quickly, and their warmth when wet isn't too shoddy: even when splashing through ice-cold streams my feet seem to heat up to a comfortable level after a minute or so or walking. I also have a pair of
socks, as espoused by Messrs Skurka and Brown. However, I found the
to be preferable.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again:
You don't need to carry a spare pair of socks for short trips
. But what you
need is to dry your feet and keep them dry after hiking (unless trench foot is something you've always fancied).
Using trail runners means that your feel will probably get wet. In persistent rain, or with that annoying final river crossing, your feet might remain wet in camp, which is less than optimal.
To solve this, a pair of waterproof socks can be worn in camp (directly over your feet; remove the wet socks for drying) to protect your feet from your wet shoes, and warm them up. I use a pair of
(126g) which are great as long as they remain dry – by which I mean don't try walking through rivers in them. Get them really wet and they take forever to dry, which is why it's best to reserve them for gentler use in camp. An alternative to SealSkinz are
– the same limitations apply however: use them after hiking, not during.
The only spare pair of socks you
carry are a lovely, fluffy pair of night socks for use when you go to bed. I have a couple of pairs which have worked for me, both merino:
(103g), and a cheaper,
(111g) which are just as good. As I'm not hiking in them, I can't distinguish any difference between the two. Their sole (ho ho ho, again) purpose is to pamper my feet at night. In the morning I leave them in my quilt, ready for the next night. They are one of the small items that always bring a smile to my face when I find them. If my feet could smile, I'm sure they would too.
As I've mentioned, we'll be covering shoes, trail runners, and everything else shoe-related in an excessive amount of detail in part 12.
Interesting alternative clothing
You're an ultra lighter. You laugh at those living on the edge because
you live on the precipice, man
! Beyond the edge!
Clothing? Pah! You spurn such piffling traditions. You'd eat them for lunch, except you don't
lunch because you're so beyond lunch you're already on dessert.
That's how ultralight you are.
If that sounds like you then first of all, I'm sorry, and second... come into my emporium of delights, gullible traveller...
Rain pants? No no no... what you want are
- the ultralight version of the wild west. Breathability is no problem with these. Credibility however... A surprising amount of manufactures make rain chaps, and in some ways they make sense. Super light; breathability a non-issue; easy to put on. Check out the offerings from
. Trust me, they're the next big thing with a hole in the butt.
Trousers? Pants? Whatever you call them, they're so last year. Do you want to be last year? No. You want to be
Right now. What you want is a kilt, my friend. I was seriously considering buying a
until I realised exactly what the mosquitoes would be biting.
A better idea (perhaps) is a rain kilt (or rain skirt). I can see some benefits to this it even doubles as a ground cloth. Check out the
, botch a pair together for yourself out of a trash bag, or watch
Rain Ponchos offer a little multi-use love to the ultralight hiker. As well as protecting you from downpours, you can often pitch them as solo tarps.
, as do
. It's something I've been meaning to give a try, but I feel it suits warmer climates better. Read a
to get a better idea.
For the true gentleman or lady ultralighter, an umbrella is the ultimate in alternative rain protection. Stylish and modern, you can make your way through the wilderness singing your favourite songs from
(do I see a resemblance to a couple of ultralight lovebirds there?). While the top-selling ultralight trekking umbrella might have different names in America (
– on sale now for $19.99) and Europe (the sexily-named
), the international language of Umbrella remains the same, as does the weight at 235g / 8oz. I have one, and I found it surprisingly useful for short showers – much quicker than putting on and taking off a rain coat all the time.
Backpacking Light offers a fine resource of technical information on all aspects of clothing. You do, however need to be a member to access most of the site (links marked (M) below. Forums and reader reviews are open to all.
Backpacking Light -
Backpacking Light -
Backpacking Light -
Backpacking Light -
Backpacking Light -
Backpacking Light -
Backpacking Light -
has a find section on clothing, offering much more technical information than I was able (or willing) to include here. It's an excellent book in general too. If I were running a course it would be on the "required reading" list.
Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux: