ultralight makeover

Ultralight Makeover Redux: Pt. 7 - Carry Less Water

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 7 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.

<< Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

7. Carry less water.

Backpacker

 begins its advice on how to carry less water with the disclaimer-esque "Don't risk dehydration, but be smart when water is plentiful. Use a map to plan refills."

That's all well and good, but what about water quality?

Backpacker

 recommends that you "Skip the filter unless you expect murky water. Instead, opt for a chemical treatment or [...] SteriPEN Adventurer Opti ($100, 3.8oz)"

Lake Superior. Lots of water – but is it safe?

Backpacking North says...

Let's face it: water is heavy. Fortunately its weight is easy to calculate: 1 litre = 1 kilogram (or 2lbs per quart), although that's not much of a consolation when you've just got your pack weight down to single digit kilograms, only to load it up with 2kg of water. But do you need to carry all that water?

In this sense,

Backpacker's

 first nugget of advice is perfectly sensible. If you are hiking in an area of plentiful water supply, then you really don't need to carry more than a litre. Have a good drink before you start, and hit the trail – if you know you're going to find water soon then why start off carrying it?

As for "use a map to plan refills"... well, duh! Unless you're hiking in the desert and plan on carrying your entire water supply with you, you should

always

 do this. Make a note – mental, on your map, on your GPS – of places on your planned route where you are likely to be able to get a refill: springs, streams, lakes. Even if you

are

 carrying all your water, it's wise to check the map for cattle troughs, stagnant ponds, or other potential emergency sources of water.

Which brings us to the meat of the matter: water quality.

Here in Lapland, much is made of the pristine waters into which you can theoretically dip your kuksa and drink to your heart's content, splashing water over your shirt and laughing hysterically at the sheer wonder of it all. But is that true, or is that marketing?

The pristine, virginal waters of Lapland. Untouched. Untainted. Unsullied.

Or are they? You can't see the pile of dead reindeer just over that ridge.

The situation was certainly very different in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, where you'd be considered a little crazy

not

to filter or treat any water – and the same can be said for most of the United States. Considering that the landscape and wildlife of northern Minnesota are very similar to that of Scandinavia, can we really continue to trust that the waters of the Nordic region are as pure and untainted as we might want to believe? Recently, on my trips to refill at natural springs, I've seen signs (in multpile languages!) warning that "this water has not been tested". I'm almost certain I contracted giardiasis once while hiking in Lapland (although it was probably in Sweden, which explains

a lot

).

Probably not such a good place to collect your water.

They don't call it "beaver fever" for nothing.

Hiking in desert areas is, of course, a different kettle of fish. While backpacking in Utah the need to carry all my water (including enough to cover any unforeseen emergencies) was back-breaking but critical. On several trips I drank every last drop, and could have used more – the problem being that in desert areas not only is there very little (if any) water available, but it is typically hot, so you need to hydrate more, and thus carry more water adding to the weight of your pack and your exhaustion/dehydration. It's quite the vicious circle. Carefully planned trips and awareness of potential (ideally confirmed) water sources are essential. And usually, precisely because those water sources are rare and therefore used by all manner of man and beast, proper filtration or water treatment is an absolute requisite.

The Sciencey Bit

So what are we talking about when we need to filter water? Well, first, at the visible level, there is particulate matter: silt, algae and detritus which give water an unappetising appearance but which can generally be filtered through anything from a buff to a coffee filter. In fact, with many filtration systems, it's better to pre-filter the water first to increase the effectiveness of the more hardcore filter or purifier in dealing with the larger (or, rather, smaller) problem: contaminants such as chemicals, micro-organisms and pathogens.

The most common contaminants you are likely to encounter are cysts and protozoa such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium, both of which will give you a nasty case of diarrhea. Fortunately, these are fairly large (on a microcosmic scale) at around 1 to 20 micron, and easily removed by most readily available filters.

Bacteria (such as E.coli, salmonella) are more smaller (between 0.1 and 10 micron), but less common unless you are stuck with really rancid water (or an animal has decided to die upstream). Filters typically remove contaminants down to 0.2 microns (better ones to 0.1 microns) and will keep you safe from both protozoa and bacteria.

Viruses (hepatitis,rotavirus, norovirus etc) are considerably smaller at 0.005 to 0.1 micron, and a different matter entirely. In order to remove viruses, you must move beyond simple filtration and

purify

 the water, typically via chemical or UV treatment. In most developed nations, waterborne viral contamination is not an issue (although I read recently that, but if you plan to travel to developing countries (notably Africa) you'd be wise to take a purifier.

To summarize: Filters typically remove protozoa and bacteria down to at least 0.2 micron (and ideally down to 0.1 micron) and are sufficient most backpacking purposes. Purifiers remove or render inactive protozoa, bacteria, and viruses through chemical or UV treatment and are ideal for really awful conditions.

But in Finland the water is clean, the banks are secure, nuclear power is safe, and we have Nokia.

Water contamination in action! But feat not, with a filter you can safely drink my

althlete's foot (or as we say in Finland, "foot mushrooms")

So what filtration/purification options are available?

There are several ways to treat your water, each having its pros and cons. Let's start with the cheapest:

Boiling

If water is boiled for at least 1 minute (longer is safer) it kills protozoa, bacteria and viruses. The advantages are that it doesn't require any equipment you don't already have, and it only costs fuel. The disadvantages are that it takes time to boil, and time to cool, and doesn't do anything for the appearance or taste of the water. In fact, boiled water tends to taste a little "flat".

Pump filters

Pump filters are probably the most common form of filtration used by the average hiker. They're simple and fast, but only eradicate protozoa and bacteria. They also get clogged very easily and require frequent in-the-field cleaning, which can often lead to contamination issues if care is not taken. They are quite heavy and bulky, and water should not be allowed to freeze in them.

MSR SweetWater Filter

 ( 11 oz / 312g, >1 litre per minute)

MSR Hyperflow pump filter

 (7.8oz / 221g, 2.75 l per minute - uses similar tech to Sawyer)

Katadyn Hiker PRO

 (11oz / 312g, 1 litre per minute)

Gravity filters

Gravity filters work in a similar way to pump filters, but let gravity do all the manual labour. Some work better than others. On the positive side, they are easy to use – just set them up and go about your business.  Their speed varies between models, but their reputation for being slow is, in my opinion, increasingly outdated. Some models need in-the-field cleaning of the filter, others can be backflushed, Care should be takes not to let the filter freeze. Like pump filters they eradicate protozoa and bacteria. Some of the water bags tend to be over designed and on the heavy side. Gravity filters sold as sets tend to be heavier than the versions you can cobble together using in/line filters, and are often limited in their flexibility.

Platypus GravityWorks filter

 (10.6oz / 305 g, 1.75 litres per minute)

Sawyer 2

&

4-Liter Gravity Filter Systems

 (16 oz / 453 g, 1.7 litres per minute)

Sip/squeeze bottles / in-line filters

Much like in-line filters in platy mode, a sip filter screws onto the top of a bottle. You fill the bottle with dirty water and suck out clean water through the filter. Some newer models allow you to squeeze water through the filter, creating a kind of manually-assisted gravity filter. They are gaining popularity because of their light weight and idiot-proof use. They filter protozoa and bacteria, and there are many of them in the marketplace.

Sitting somewhere between gravity filters and bottle filters are "do-it-all" in-line filets. These can be fitted between a dirty water source and a clean output. They are designed to be adaptable to many uses: gravity feed, in-pack platypus filter (just fill a platy with dirty water and suck clean water through the filter), or in a bottle. They filter all of the same bad guys as other filters, and can do so at a fair clip (the Sawyer below filters 1.7 litres per minute). They do require post-trip backflushing, and might take some imagination in setting up a flexible system (but at least you can create a ultralight one). They are however light and relatively trouble-free. Incidentally, Sawyer guarantee their filters for 1 million gallons! Pinch of salt, anyone?

Sawyer PointOne Squeeze filter

 (3.5oz / 99g dry, flow rates depends on your squeezing skills)

Sawyer All-in-One Squeeze / Gravity filter

(similar to PointOne Squeeze, but includes gravity kit etc.)

Sawyer 3-Way In-Line filter

  (1.7 l per minute / 2 oz (56g) dry)

Sawyer 4-Way In-Line Filter System

 (similar to the 3-Way, but includes bottle)

DrinkSafe Aquaguard Eliminator

 (A UK filter much like the Sawyer. 300ml+ per minute, 71g / 2.5oz. )

Travel Tap

 (150g / 5.2oz)

Super Delios

 (40g / 1.4oz excluding bottle)

Aquapure Traveller

 (145g / 5oz)

DrinkSafe Waterstraw

 (40g / 1.4oz)

Frontier Pro filter

(2oz / 56g) (Note: Frontier pro filters are rated only to 3.0 microns, but Aquamira claim their technology still provides adequate filtration. They are also limited to filtering 50 gallons. See

discussion at Backpacking Light

.

Frontier Pro Bottle Adaptor

 (weight unknown)

UV treatment

Ultra-violet light disrupts the DNA of microorganisms, rendering protozoa, bacteria and viruses inactive after exposure for a short period of time (around 90 seconds). UV purifiers are light weight, simple to use, and very efficient. The downsides are that murky water should be pre-filtered as it impedes the transmission of light, and as the devices are electronic (powered by batteries) they can, on occasion, fail. Reliability has improved (I'm told), but a backup should always be carried.

SteriPEN Adventurer

 3.6oz / 102g (inc. batteries)

New:

SteriPen Freedom

2.6oz / 73g (exc. charger - looks good, but I'm hesitant about rechargeable batteries in the wilderness – better to be able to carry spares. Also, initial reports seem to indicate sporadic failures).

Chemical treatment

The ultimate ultralight solution, chemical treatment of water via iodine, chlorine dioxide or (if you dare to go there) bleach.  Iodine is ineffective against cryptosporidium, and less effective anyway at cold temperatures. It's use has also been banned in the EU. Bleach likewise is not good for cryptosporidium, and both iodine and bleach will taint the flavour of water.  Of the three, chlorine dioxide is the better choice. It kills all bacteria, protozoa and viruses, but absolute effectiveness against cryptosporidium can take some considerable time (up to 4 hours, although many users wait 30 minutes and start praying while they're waiting). As far as taste is concerned, chlorine dioxide is said to improve the taste of murky water. For it's weight and price (at least in the short run) this is by far the best option for the ultralight hiker.

Aquamira Chlorine Dioxide Water Treatment Drops

(popular, long lasting, good value for money, but take 4 hours to reliably clear cryptosporidium)

Aquamira Water Purifier Tablets

 (also popular and convenient, better for winter)

Katadyn MicroPur Tablets

 (alternative to Aquamira)

What does Backpacking North use?

When I arrived in America I was surprised and befuddled at the peculiar obsession with filtering water. I paid a visit to Midwest Mountaineering to figure out which filter would be best, and ended up getting an MSR Sweetwater pump filter.

At first I was oddly excited by the idea of pumping away and producing spurts of pure water joy from the murky brown lakes in the BWCAW. That was on day one. On day two, pumping already started to get a little difficult. But day three, the pump was

incredibly

 hard to use, and every attempt resulted in the pump's pressure release valve squirting dirty water all over me – and in the BWCAW (a.k.a. Beaver Kingdom) you

really

 want to avoid contaminated water.

Cleaning the filter wasn't difficult, although the little brush had a tendency to flick lake gunk all over my face. Unfortunately, although it was easy to clean, cleaning had little effect on productivity. It made pumping a little easier for  while, but by the next day it was pretty much useless again. Needless to say I was quite annoyed I'd wasted $85 on it.

I began my search for an alternative. I'd read about the Frontier Pro, and seen a

couple

of

videos

on YouTube that made it look quite promising. It was certainly lighter at 2oz. It was really cheap ($25). It could be screwed onto a bottle, or used as a gravity filter. The only downside was that limit of 50 gallons. So I ordered two. Cunning, huh?

While they were on their way to me, I happened to notice the

Sawyer in-line filter

 in a local store, with "1 MILLION GALLONS GUARANTEED" shouting at me in big, happy letters. It weighed the same as the Frontier Pro, and as far as I could tell, the design would allow me to create a better gravity system than the Frontier Pro (the Frontier attaches directly to a platy, but with the Sawyer you can separate the filter from the platy, thus increasing pressure and flow rate). I decided to get the Sawyer and sell the Frontier Pros.

Sawyer in-line filter (2009 version)

It took me a little while to create an ideal set up. At that time the Sawyer filter was a little simpler in design – now it comes with some simple tubing attachment clips so you can more easily swap it from gravity filter, to in-line platy/reservoir filter, to squeeze filter.

I was pretty amazed at the speed of filtration – it's very fast. You can set up a 2 liter platy in camp and after a couple of minutes it's all done. The taste is clean, it's easy to backflush in the field – although I never needed to – there's no mess. Put simply, it just works. I've been very happy with it and can recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Sawyer in full flow

Now I'm back in Lapland, do I still need to use it? According to folk wisdom, apparently not. Maybe I'm foolish, but I tend to think it would be overkill. Although the filter itself weighs only 56g, once you add in all the piping and platys it rises to >250g.

I've been thinking about getting a SteriPEN and using that. At 100g including batteries, it weighs less, and  takes up very little room. The question is, would I really use it? There's not really any point taking it unless you use it all the time, and I'm fairly certain I can find ample clean water in Lapland, or at least water that is extremely low risk.

The other issue with the SteriPENs is that  every single person I have hiked with who has used one has experienced a failure of one kind or another (and ended up using my Sawyer). I've heard the new Adventure models are more reliable, but I tend to think that if an electronic device is going to fail, it's going to fail on the trail, so you always have to carry a backup anyway. If I need to purify, I can just boil any suspicious water, so I suspect the only reason I might be interested in a SteriPEN is gear fetishism.

I would use Aquamira drops or tablets, but I've not seen any for sale locally – probably because of the aforementioned "purity" of the waters. In fact, now I think of it, I haven't seen any filters of any kind for sale in Rovaniemi.

So, I think for the moment it's the Sawyer for travel in places I'm not confident have good water, and faith in the purity of Lapland waters while on my home turf. I might one day switch to the Squeeze, but for now my in-line filter is simple, light, and reliable. And that's all I need.

One other thing: what about carrying water?

Good question! I've been a convert to collapsible plastic bottles for the last few years – mine are 1liter ones from Platypus. I generally keep at least one in a side pocket of my pack. If I'm carrying the Sawyer, and depending on the water resupply situation, I might fill a designated dirty reservoir, slip it in my pack  and fit the filter/mouthpiece to it so I can drink handsfree while on the move. It the water tastes a bit gunky, I'll add a Nuun tab straight in the dirty water bag – the Sawyer can handle it – and get some flavoursome electrolytes while I'm at it.

Joe

and

Dave

have a few very valid things to say in favour of hard plastic Nalgene bottles, not least of  flexibility as multi-use items (e.g. sock dryers, hot water bottles, cowboy coffee makers). The wide mouthed nalgenes are also much easier to fill than narrow mouthed, flexible bottles. Try to make sure you get a BPA-free one though.

What do the other incredibly good-looking people of blogdom do?

Ryan Jordan seems fond of his SteriPEN, while Andrew Skurka states a preference Aquamira drops on his long treks in his excellent

Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide

.

The

Jolly Green Giant

has been using a

Lifestraw

,

Katadyn Micropur

tabs, and the interesting

Super Delios

. I like the look of the Super Delios, so I'd be interested to hear comments from anyone else who has tried one.

A quick survey of mostly UK-based twitter peeps (

@munro277

@HelenJFisher

@PhilOutdoors

@nigep

@JourneymanTrav

  –

 follow them all!) reveals the 

Travel Tap

 to be most popular, with the

Sawyer Squeeze

a close second, followed by the

Drinksafe Water Straw

@atirila

 uses a Frontier Pro with Micropur tabs, and he's in Finland. Another sceptic of Nordic purity?

Talking of the

Sawyer Squeeze

,

Philip reviews it favourably at Section Hiker

, and

Stick offers a comprehensive review

(with additional video links).

HikeLighter also has very thorough coverage

, as does

Wood Trekker

. All seem to give it a good thumbs up. If I were to pick one problem with it it would be the size of the pouch mouths – they are of the small variety, making it harder/slower to fill them from lakes and streams.

If you just can't stand wading through another link to our corporate overlords, Brian's Backpacking Blog has you covered: follow his instructions on

how to make your own filter

.

So how well did

Backpacker

do this time?

Pretty good, all said and done. They recommended either chemical treatment or a SteriPEN, which is pretty close to the consensus of ultralight evangelistas everywhere. They could have mentioned the highly-regarded Sawyer filters, but hey,

they gave the Squeeze the Editor's Choice 2012

, so all's fair and square in my book.

Links

Sawyer Water Filters

Drinksafe Filters

 (Travel Tap, Waterstraw, Aquaguard)

Aquamira

(Froniter Pro and Aquamira drops/tabs)

Cascade Designs / Platypus / MSR

Katadyn

Delios

SteriPEN

Lifestraw

REI article on Water Treatment

Another REI article on water treatment

Mike Clelland! on drinking untreated water

Jolly Green Giant on water treatment options

Ryan Jordan on backcountry water treatment

Backpacking Light Water Treatment reviews

Backpacking Light Water Treatment Series

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break

Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 6 - Pay Attention to the Menu

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 6 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.

<< Part 5: Start Cooking Light

Backpacker

 begins its tips for your culinary delight in the wilderness with some stern advice "If you carry an extra day's worth of food, you might as well carry a rock in your pack. [...]Carrying emergency extra food is tempting, but how many three-season trips turn into unplanned epics? In a survival situation, water and shelter will be much more important than food."

So no extra sausage rolls for you, fatso! Instead, as a guideline for how much food to take, they suggest choosing "items that deliver 100 cals per ounce, like candy bars, trail mix and cheese. Total weight, two pounds per person per day is a good starting figure - but individual needs may vary."

Backpacking North says...

To begin with their first point, there is some truth to their idea that you don't necessarily need to pack an extra day's food on a three-season, weekend trip. If you are familiar with the area you'll be hiking, and with some basic compass skills, the likelihood of you getting completely lost is pretty slim. Of course, there's always the possibility that you might miscalculate the distances you plan to walk, or decide to spend another day out, bet even then you will in all likelihood survive for one day on an empty stomach.

Now, I'm not advocating

not

 taking a reserve supply of food on all trips. The point is to use some common sense to determine the likelihood of you needing it. In summer, assuming I'm going somewhere reasonably familiar, it's not a high priority. If I was off hiking in a vast, unfamiliar wilderness, miles away from any method of communication, I'd definitely pack some extra food. Similarly in winter I always pack a little more than necessary, in case I need extra to fuel me through the night, or in the event that I suffer some kind of catastrophic gear failure.

In the end, the basic rules of wilderness travel apply; be prepared and always let someone know where you're going and when you plan to be back (there's even a website for that: 

shouldbeback.com

).

The Ultralight Cook's Companions

Let's turn to 

Backpacker's

second point: the issue of

how much

 food to take per day.

I almost dread getting into figures, fearing the wrath of those more fanatically obsessed with calorific minutiae than I, but as hard as I want to avoid it, it seems impossible. So rather than pull a bunch of conspicuous data out of thin air, let's take a quick look around the internet (although some would say that's the same thing) to see what other people think is a good average daily requirement.

Ray Jardine: 2.5 lbs (1.1kg) per day for thru-hiking

Ryan Jordan: 1.25lbs (.57kg) per day (at 125 calories per ounce, or 440 calories per 100g) for a 3-season, 3-day trip

Andrew Skurka: 1.5 lbs per day (also at 125 calories per ounce)

Mike Clelland: 1.4 lbs (.63kg) per day

Backpacker

suggests two pounds (900g) of food per day per person, or 100 calories per ounce (28g). Comparing this to the data above, we can see that we could aim for less weight, and more calories. Something between 1.25 – 1.5 lbs (0.57 - 0.68 kg) per day, and that 125 calories per ounce appears to be a generally accepted standard.

Personally, I find thinking of weight per day a little too abstract and potentially unrelated to nutritional and calorific value. On the other hand, I find looking a the amount of calories provided per gram too detailed. But I'm a particularly unscientific person when it comes to food. For me, looking at the amount of calories I need per day is about as technical as I like to get. It's a lot simpler, but still far from conclusive. The amount of food you take should also, of course, be based on individual needs: your BMI, your metabolism, your stamina, your penchant for reindeer jerky... To repeat what appears to be the refrain for this series: what works for me doesn't necessarily work for you. It's impossible to give a guide that meets the requirements of every person. We're all different, so any figures are necessarily estimates which can at best be used as starting points. Still, for your edutainment, here are some numbers to delight and enthrall:

Average male: 2500/day

Average female: 2000/day

US Army: 4500 calories/day for strenuous work

Andrew Skurka

: 3000/day for short trips (5000/day for his mega hikes)

Okay, so if an average male needs around 2500 calories a day, and Mr. Skurka recommends 3000/day for short trips, we can see that on a simple weekend hike we're really not going to need

that

 much more food than we would eat on any average day sitting around on our backsides eating Nacho Cheese Balls.

Hence, I offer you the very scientific Backpacking North advice: "take a bit more food than usual." Finding an extra 500 or so calories to keep me going on the trail is never usually a problem. Between munching on chocolate, energy bars, jerky, and doubling up basic portions for breakfast and dinner, I typically have plenty of calories to go around, and frankly, I don't usually notice if I don't quite meet the values of some caloric intake table. I think most of us wouldn't be too upset if we burned off a little fat in the process of hiking either.

On a two or three day hike, it's highly unlikely that you won't have enough food, and even if you do go a little hungry, you won't die (probably;

hopefully

). To quote Backpacking Light's publication

Lightweight Backpacking and Camping

, "A few days of hiking at a significant calorific defecit won't kill you, and most of us, bu invoking some mental fortitude, can survive a few days without food with no long-term effects." For a longer hike (say a week or two) you obviously need to plan a little more so you get enough vitamins and nutrition, and don't end up hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest store with an empty food bag. But even if, owing to some miscalculation, you don't have quite enough food to last, have to ration out what you have, and may end up a little hungry, you'll survive. As ever, the most valuable data is that gained with experience of hiking: only you know what you need.

When it comes to ultralight food, the more relevant issue is how to reduce the weight of the food you want to carry. The

type

 of food you eat is of equal importance to how much you eat.  Fast burning sugars are of less use than long burning carbs. The trick is in combining them sensibly, and spreading them out over the day, and this is where getting to grips with nitty-gritty details of calories per ounce can come in handy.

What to eat

If we look at the statistical nuggets shared by Messrs Jordan, Skurka and Clelland above, we can see that it's fairly typical to work towards an average of 125 cals per ounce (or 440 cals per 100g). Of course, the key word there is "average" - we can achieve this by mixing high-calorific density foods (such as cashews, olive oil, butter, chocolate

et al

) with less calorifically dense but still nutritious staples.

That might sound complicated, but guess what, it's pretty much what you do everyday when you cook. For hiking we just need to stack the deck in favour of the high-density foods to gain a few extra calories, and reduce the weight of the food we carry in the process.

A fantastic resource for discovering the calorific content of pretty much every food imaginable is the

USDA food nutrition site

. For example, without even searching for anything I can see that salted butter has 717 cals per 100g - already well above our desired average of 440 cals per 100g.  A quick look at couscous reveals a far below average of 112 per 100g, but that's okay because butter and cashews alone do not a tasty meal make. Combine the butter (or even better - and healthier - olive oil at 884 per 100g) and cashews with some couscous, dried tomato, a little chilli powder, and perchance some dates (because dates are great) and hey presto, you're well on the way to a tasty evening meal that doesn't weigh too heavily in the pack, and is quick and easy to prepare.

The USDA site is packed full of other info on the nutritional content of various foods, so you can easily balance your meals to get the vitamins, carbs, and proteins your cardiovascular system is desperately crying out for.

How to eat light

As far as ultralight eating technique is concerned, there are two camps (ho ho ho). Some like to eat on the go, and often will hit the trail without breakfast, snacking all day long as they walk. Such people tend to be those covering high milage, for whom constant movement is one of the benefits offered by ultralight hiking.

Others (such as myself) like to take it easier, hang around in camp for breakfast, eat snacks ont he trail, maybe have a light lunch, then settle down for a feast in the evening. Neither is better or worse than the other, and both offer their advantages.

Whichever method suits your hiking practice, it might help to divide up your calorie intake into breakfast/morning, lunch/afternoon, and dinner/evening. How you choose to do this again depends on your particular style.

Lightweight Backpacking and Camping

 suggests:

  • Breakfast, 20-25%
  • Lunch 50-60% as a series of snacks
  • Dinner, 20-25% as late on-trail or in-camp meal

Personally, I tend to have about 20% for breakfast, 40% spilt between trail munching and a light lunch,  and 40% for an evening meal, but I know I have good stamina and can keep going for a long time on a fairly empty stomach. I also like the promise of stuffing my face in the evening as a reward for a good day's hiking.

How to cook light

One of the most significant changes I underwent on the road to ultralight was rethinking cooking methodology. While I always felt that taking pots, lids, cutlery, spices, detergent, a sponge, a fairly heavy stove, tins of tuna(!) was a pain, it never occurred to me that there might be another way... until I read about freezer-bag cooking.

One thing I always hated form my ultra-heavy days was the drudgery of cleaning a pot full of burned rice or oats. Wouldn't it be nice to eliminate all the preparation and cleaning up work from the campsite kitchen?

And what if all the food preparation were taken care of before you leave, at home, and cooking on the trail was simply a matter of pouring boiling water into a bag? In one fjell swoop (sorry) you'd reduce your pack weight and save yourself the hassle of doing the dishes. Welcome to freezer bag cooking.

Water boils. Soon a delicious meal will be consumed, and instead of doing the dishes,

we shall drink whisky, for we are ultralight alcoholics, and this is our way. Oh, sorry... ultralight

hikers!

Freezer-bag cooking, as its eponymous name cleverly suggests, is the art of cooking in freezer bags – also known as Ziplocs, Glad, and Minigrips – the same easy-to-seal bags you'll likely find stuffed in a bottom drawer somewhere in your kitchen. The method is simple: prepare your meal in advance in dried form (be it breakfast, lunch or dinner), add the appropriate amount of boiling water on the trail, and after a few minutes your meal is ready to be eaten straight from the bag. No mess. No cleanup. No nonsense. By using dried food you eliminate the water which is the main weight culprit in fresh foods, and, just as important, by cooking less you'll save on the amount of fuel that needs to be carried or collected.

You might be thinking that those flimsy plastic bags wont take boiling water, but you'd be surprised. It's worth checking at home to be on the safe side (I wouldn't want your

coq au vin

to spill all over your BPL Coccoon pants) but I've yet to experience a burst or melted bag. The best ones to look for are those that have a bellows-style bottoms that allows them to stand on their own.

It also helps to have something you can use to hold the hot bag of meal, and for this I recommend the ever-useful buff, a multi-use tool

par excellence

. A long-handled spoon or spork (no need for

spork cover

) comes in very handy too.

When you've eaten, just squeeze out the air, seal the bag, stuff it in your trash and pack it out.

So how might one go about preparing such a meal?

Often it's simply a matter of combining readily available ingredients. For breakfast, for example, I chuck a couple of packets of instant oats in to a bag and I'm good to go. By doing this you can also eliminate the weight of frequently excessive packaging.

For dinner, or more ambitions meals, it can be as simple or as complicated as you like. Couscous, as previously mentioned, makes a very easy meal, and you can add all sorts of pre-dried goodies to create a feast. If couscous isn't your grain of choice, there's always rice and potato flakes to bulk out your meal. The joy is in the art of combining dried ingredients into a tasty, quick meal.

While it's fairly easy to concoct a decent feast from readily available dried foods, if you want total control over backcountry cuisine, you should look into getting a food dehydrator. By drying whatever ingredients (or even complete meals) you fancy, you can take your gourmet lifestyle on the trail. I've only experimented briefly with dehydrators in the US (my dehydrator wasn't compatible with Euro voltages, so it got sold) but it's great fun and makes the house smell delicious. For more advice on the joys of drying all kinds of stuff out, take a look the

king

of

ultralight

dehydration

cuisine

,

hrxxLight

. He'll even teach you how to

dehydrate your toothpaste

! While a

good food dehydrator

isn't cheap, at least in Finland you can rent one really cheaply from

4H

.

Another great sourcefor recipes and ideas that I often refer to is 

Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple

 by Sarah Svien Kirkconnel.

If you have any good recipes, or know of any good links please add them in the comments.

One last thing: remember to be sensible when

cooking in bear country

. I can't afford my readership to fall any lower.

What does Backpacking North munch on?

I nearly always start the day with a couple of packets of oatmeal. I usually mix two ready-made packets of different varieties, typically combining an apple & cinnamon with a date-flavoured one. You could easily spruce that up with a dash of powdered milk, and maybe some ghee and brown sugar.

On the trail I snack on whatever home-made gorp I've concocted. This usually contains chocolate in the form of M&Ms or choc chips, cashew nuts, raisins, japanese crackers, yogurt raisins, and slices of dehydrated mango (delicious!). I often also carry a stash of jerky, and an emergency energy gel pack (on very rare occasions, on and off trail, I get a sugar crash, so I like to know I'm covered should I experience one in the middle of nowhere).

I have yet to find a snack as delicious as the Tanka natural buffalo cranberry bar.

Sadly they are unavailable in Finland, but fortunately spicy reindeer jerky is now

readily available, and makes a good second best.

For many years, I often took along a tortilla or two, and a couple of packets of flavoured tuna to make a lunch wrap. Recently, however, tortilla and tuna have fallen out of favour. The tortilla nearly always dry up and break, and the tuna packaging is actually quite heavy. Instead I've started snacking on more gorp as I walk, and then for lunch I just eat a Clif bar (or equivalent protein and calorie-rich bar). Sure, it's less glamourous (and probably less healthy) than a delicious tuna sandwich, but for short trips where food variation is less important, it revives me, and keeps me moving.

On a not unrelated side note,  I always take along a tube of electrolyte tabs, with

Nuun's Lemon-Lime

being my favourite. They add a little taste to water, but more importantly restore mineral and electrolyte balance lost through extended activity. I've found they reduce aches and pains by keeping my muscles well lubricated.

For the evening meal I tend to be very lazy and just grab whatever packed, freeze-dried meal I happen to find in the stores. In the US, I grew partial to 

Backpackers Pantry Shepherd's Pie

, which was a lot better than you might imagine. In my experience when you find one of those packaged hiking meals which is edible, you should stick with them and not get tempted by anything too exotic (Kashmir Curries and Moroccan Quinoa Casseroles are far better kept between you and your dehydrator).

Fred attempts to find flavour in a Mountain House meal, without success.

If I was going on a longer expedition I'd start dehydrating my own ingredients and meals. But for quick, spur-of-the-moment trips, it's not worth the hassle. I also keep a plastic box in the gear closet full of leftover and unused meals, packets of oatmeal, etc, so I can grab something quickly and head off if the opportunity arises.

You might be wondering about rations. Those freeze-dried meals are nearly always labelled "for two", but when you look at the calorie content, you'll invariably find that they will just about provide enough for one when taking into consideration your increased activity. So good news, abandon all guilt ye who open at the dotted line.

What do others eat? 

Food is such a personal choice it would be foolish to try to spot trends among the blogging cognoscenti.

However, when it comes to picking a favourite pre-packaged meal, there has recently been fervent excitement over the arrival of

Fuizion's

range of trail foods. I've yet to taste any of them, but the descriptions on their website already have my mouth watering. Bloggers are raving even more than usual abou them, and even a quick look at the photos reveals food that's a cut above your typical freeze-dried fare.

Lamb Tagine. © Fuizion

Check out what

Terry

,

Roger

and

Phil

think about them.

As far as general tips and advice on trail food is concerned, there is a wealth of information available both online and in print.

Sam H. keeps it simple

with advice and a breakdown of his food technique for an overnighter.

Stick shares his

thoughts on freeze-dried food

, including freeze-dried ice cream which I, too, have tried, and found to be a most peculiar experience.

Hendrik has much to say on the matter of food.

Food for Thought part 1

 covers the basics,

part 2

 gets into the realm of spreadsheets, and

part 3

 features some particularly nasty Chorizo. His post on

stoveless cooking

is also worth checking out.  I'm considering a few super ultralight trips this year, taking advantage of Lapland's laavu's and firepits to reduce weight to an absolute minimum, so this was of particular interest to me. More can be found on this interesting topic over at uloutdoors on Jake Down's guest posts (

one

and

two

), and in Finnish at

Ilman täydennystä

.

Another way to make sure you have ample food without having to carry it is to learn some foraging and hunting skills. How about taking along a 

Tenkara

 rod if there are some nice freshwater streams or lakes around? Or perhaps learning to identify mushrooms and herbs?

If you want to try the "ultimate ultralight backpacking snack", head on over to

ShockinglyDelicious

where they try out Mick Clelland's recipe for Super Spackle. I have to say is does look rather scrumptious.

Last but not least, in a first for Backpacking North, I offer you my recipe for Spicy Couscous with Dates.

Backpacking North's Spicy Couscous with Dates

This is based on a recipe I have at 

AllRecipes.com

 which I adapt for the trail according to what I fancy and have available in the cupboards. I've offered approximate alternatives here for some of the original ingredients, but feel free to mess with the ingredients and amounts.

Ingredients:

3 tbsp dried onions

2 whole star anise pods (optional, but gives it a nice tang)

salt to taste

1.5 tbsp dried garlic (or less garlic powder)

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped and dried (or substitute sun-dried tomatos)

1 tbsp red chilli flakes (or to taste)

1/2 tsp black pepper, ground

dried equivalent of 4 large mushrooms, (a handful of porcini would be ideal), chopped or broken

1/4 cup chopped dates (although you can happily put more in)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 cup uncooked couscous

1stock cube or tbsp dried stock powder

1 tbsp lemon juice (optional, if you choose to carry it though, it's worth it)

1 tbsp olive oil/ghee

1.5 cups / 350ml water

Directions:

1. At home, combine all dried ingredients in a ziploc bag and write 1.5 cups or 350ml on the bag so you remember when you get to camp after walking around lost for hours.

2. At camp, add the requisite amount of water and squelch it all around the bag so it's all mixed well.

3. Add the oil/ghee and lemon juice if you're using it.

4. Wait. The longer you wait, the softer the mushrooms (depending on how much you dried them). Tip - they are the weak point of the recipe in the field. You could soak them a little before if you want to.

5. Fluff with a spork and enjoy.

Until next time... I look forward to tips, advice, and hopefully some recipes from readers and bloggers!

Links:

Fuizion

Mountain House

Backpackers Pantry

Packit Gourmet

Real Turmat

Backcountry Cuisine

Freezer Bag Cooking / Trail Cooking

FBC 101

Brian Green's Freezer Bag Cooking

and delicious

Cranberry Chicken with Stuffing

More recipes than you can shake a dash of pepper at, at 

Backpacking Chef

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break

Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 5 - Start Cooking Light

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 5 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.

<< Part 4: Change your bedding

5. Start cooking light.

Backpacker

has some interesting advice for newbie ultralighters, informing us that we can "reduce fuel consumption by [...] painting the bottom of all silver pots with flat black Rust-Oleum stove paint, which boosts efficiency by 30-40%". However, they also note that you can "skip the paint job with an integrated stove/pot like the

JetBoil Flash Cooking System

($100, 14oz)."

As for what you put in your pots,

Backpacker

 recommends that you "choose quick cook foods (couscous or pasta) and plan some no cook meals (granola instead of oatmeal). Stick to one pot meals and limit hot drinks."

Backpacking North says...

I had to read the line about painting the bottom of your pots black a couple of times to let the astounding nature of this tip sink in.  In all the years I've been backpacking, both heavy and light, I have never once seen or heard of anyone doing this. Could it be that in the entire gamut of experience amassed in the ultralight kingdom, backpackers have missed out on a fundamental ultralight concept that could significantly affect fuel consumption?

Something about it sounded fishy. For one thing, pots are heated by conduction – the direct contact of a heat source (the stove) to another object (the pot). As far as I'm aware, the colour of an object makes no difference to conductive heat transfer, and adding a layer of paint between the metallic surface of the pot and the flame would theoretically increase resistance and reduce efficiency.

Of course, heat transfer through radiation is another matter – we all know that black objects get hotter in the sun than white ones (although anyone who has sat at the tables outside Kiasma in Helsinki in mid summer knows that silver also gets unfathomably hot). Had

Backpacker

 got their elementary physics confused?

Naturally curious, I turned to twitter and the internet in search of answers, and discovered I was not alone in my skepticism. I found several rebuttals to

Backpacker

's claims on YouTube, and a couple of tests by

Hiram Cook

to prove them wrong. Here is his second test, which, while not 100% scientific, clearly proves

Backpacker

's claims to be wildly inaccurate and misleading.

Frankly, it astounds me that a magazine, in an era in which their publication model is under threat, would print such inaccurate advice. While Hiram's tests do show a slight improvement in boil times, this could equally be due to inconsistent testing conditions. I can only hope that hoards of budding ultralight backpackers didn't run out the the hardware store and coat their pots.

But enough about Rust-Oleum. I'm also surprised at the brevity of their culinary advice, being limited to "couscous or pasta" (thanks for that) and granola over oatmeal (isn't granola heavier?). They didn't touch preparing food at home, dehydrating food yourself, or freezer-bag cooking. They also don't mention any of these options in the next item in their guide, "Pay attention to the menu". As that would seem a more relevant place to talk about cuisine, I'll leave a more detailed discussion of food matters until Part 6, and talk instead about something which every ultralighter loves to talk about: stoves and other heating methods.

Backpacker

's recommended ultralight cooking system – the

JetBoil Flash

– has always been a favourite, but less so among the ultralight community. 14oz is a fair old weight compared to some of the canister-mounted stoves currently available (e.g. the

Monatauk Gnat

at 1.6oz), although it's efficiency can't be argued with. It's likely that

Backpacker

 wasn't aware of JetBoil's recently released titanium version of their system, the

SolTi

, which as we'll see has been garnering rave reviews, and weighs a mere 8.5oz (240g) – pot included – so it would be unfair to criticize them too harshly for recommending the wrong JetBoil product.

But we backpackers love our stoves, and there are many varieties for different occasions: wood burning stoves, wood/alcohol combinations, esbit tabs, homemade cat cans, canister mounted, chimney/kettle designs... the list goes on. So where do we begin when we want to narrow down the choices?

Fuel availability and weight considerations

On important factor in deciding which stove to use is the availability of the necessary fuel in the area that you'll be using it. This goes beyond the simple matter of "Can I get Primus gas cans in Guatemala?" – although that is of course an important consideration if you plan on going to Guatemala.

Take wood burning stoves, for example. I love them, but I mainly hike in areas where there is ample wood or other combustible material available. There is also the issue of whether or not you are permitted to use them  because of fire or ecosystem restrictions. But if you

are

 hiking in forested regions, not having to carry fuel with you is great way to save weight. Foraging for suitable twigs and sticks is also a nice way to wind down. Here's a tip: I like to carry a ziploc bag with me on the trail and collect as I go toward the end of the day. That way I'm ready for a nice cuppa when I make camp. With a wood burner you can ignore

Backpacker

's advice and make as many hot drinks as you want, providing you don't mind collecting more wood.

There are some areas where canister stoves are essential and convenient. They are perfect for anywhere that prohibits open fires, and great when you want a fast, efficient boil. In winter they are often a godsend – a no fuss way of getting warm – and while their efficiency rapidly falls in cold weather, there are ways around this (keeping your canister warm, placing it in a shallow bowl of water, using a remote canister style stove with a pre-heating tube and inverting the gas can). The downside is that the gas canisters are heavy and bulky, and that's one reason why the SolTi is exciting: small canisters, excellent fuel efficiency, light weight.

Another popular fuel source is alcohol. A simple alcohol stove can be made from an (empty!)

can of beer/water

can or

cat food tin

, and the small amount of fuel needed make it an ideal choice for longer trips – providing you can deal with poor efficiency, so make sure you carry a decent wind break.

Esbit tabs

are also popular for their lightweight, compact simplicity. I've never used them myself, but many swear by them.

But how about the ultimate in ultralight: carry nothing. If you're hiking somewhere familiar that allows firemaking – either in designated places or in safely constructed, leave-no-trace compliant fireplaces – perhaps you can get away with using the natural or provided resources. Finnish laavu's, for example. often provide a supply of chopped wood. Some even have iron kettles over the fire pits. If you plan your route carefully, it's possible you could travel from camp to camp and never have to carry a pot, stove, or fuel.

Finland. Ultralight backpacker's paradise, or evil socialist dystopia? You decide.

However, having experienced a morning surrounded by nothing but damp twigs which refused to burn in my wood stove, I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's always good to have a plan B - and that's where multi fuel systems like the

Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri 

shine. Through a clever combination of parts which all fit inside your pot, you can burn wood, alcohol, or Esbit tabs. It's an ideal solution and one I'm planning on trying.

What does Backpacking North use?

For many years I got by just fine with a Primus Micron canister-mounted stove. My original version weighs a not unreasonable 98g, but the titanium version Primus released about three weeks after I bought mine (damn them!) weighed 70g. It was one of the first lightweight stoves, and has lasted well. Now it appears to have been rebranded as an

Express Ti

 at 75g / 2.5oz.

The Primus Micron (original, less cool version) on holiday in Lofoten at a time

when it was still considered essential to carry yellow plastic bowls everywhere.

While in Finland last year, I needed to pick up a cheap alternative stove as my Micron was in the Minneapolis. I found an

Edelrid Kiro ST

(84g) which performs just as well as the Micron. To be honest, while there are differences between canister-mounted stoves, they all boil water reasonably quickly, and for short trips any one of them will suffice. If I had to buy a new one today, I'd be looking at the

Monatauk Gnat

– currently the lightest available at 1.6oz (45g), and apparently also sold as the

GoSystem Fly

– or the

Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator

 (2.6oz / 73g), which claims to have some clever technology that regulates the flow of gas when the canister is getting empty. Its effectiveness has been questioned and largely proven to be a false claim by

Backpacking Light,

in its 

merely average review

.

Incidentally, 

Backpacking Light

 has an

exhaustive analysis of gas canisters

 (membership required), and the effect that the proportions of the blend of gases contained in various brands has on boil times in different temperatures. This is most relevant for use at altitude or in winter, at which point it makes more sense to use a remote stove (one that is connected to the gas canister via a tube) so that the canister can be used inverted. I use a

Primus Express Spider

in winter for exactly that reason. As we're dealing with three-season trips in these articles, I'll leave it to

wintercampers.com

to provide more info on why inversion is useful. Recently, I picked up a

JetBoil SolTi

for a trip above treeline in Lapland where I expected wood to be sparsely available. While it's still a touch on the heavy side, it compares well as a completed system for trips of up to 10 days, and really does boil water extremely quickly (2 to 3 minutes).

Carrying gas canisters is a bit of a drag though. I always end up playing safe and carrying too much, and then accumulating a small collection of canisters in various states of emptiness. All that changed when I ordered a

BushBuddy Ultra

 – a handmade, lightweight (139g), highly efficient wood burning stove made by

Fritz Handel

 in Canada (and licensed to

BushCooker

in the EU– but let's be honest, it's not as cool as the original).

My first impressions were noted here

, and I still maintain that its sculpted flames are a joyful sight to behold.

BushBuddy in action. Note that the pot is black from soot, not Rust-Oleum.

Once everything settles down after I get back to Finland in a few weeks, I'm thinking about getting a Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri, mainly because of the built in windscreen and multi-fuel flexibility.

What do others use?

Maybe it's just the idea of playing with fire, but stoves seem to be one object that we love to purchase over and over again, in various forms, just for the sheer hedonistic fun involved in boiling a pot of water.

Stove trends make their way around the blogosphere like memes. The current hot item (ho ho ho) is the...

JetBoil Sol Ti

The ultralight version of the JetBoil Flash, the Sol Ti's  weighs a skimpy 240g (338g with all the trinkets), and boils fast (around 2 minutes in good conditions). The only downside is it's $149.99 price.

Backpacking Light

gave it a Highly Recommended

rating. Ryan Jordan is a "

huge fan

". Hendrik likes it (at least I think he does –

the review is alive!

), but has some environmental reservations. I'm almost certain

Phil liked it

, and 

Roger sounds like he's switched

to using one. There have been a few reports of

corrosion

around where the heat exchanger connects to the rest of the unit. It remains to be seen whether this will be a long-term problem, but at present it doesn't appear to affect the unit's functionality.

Before the Sol Ti hit the shelves, everyone was all ablaze (ho ho ho again) over the...

Courtesy & © Boilerwerks

Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler

As an example of community-funded product development, the Backcountry Boiler is, perhaps, the

piece de resistance

of the stove world. Hiking in Finland has a

great guest article by Boilerwerks founder Devin Montgomery

on the development of the stove. Weighing 9.7oz (227g), the boiler is constructed of a container vessel built around a central chimney, which is placed on a stove bottom. Wood can be dropped into the chimney, and the excellent wind protection ensures a fiery burn and a rapid boil. Devin he recently released a FireFelt alcohol wick which fits inside the burner section, extending the usefulness of the stove.

Lightpack

has a review, as does

Trail Savvy

, and the aptly-named

Burning Little Sticks

has a nice write-up. The Kickstarter-funded project has now closed (

with massive success

), but you'll soon be able to order one online from Boilerwerks.

There is also a spurious knock-off version of the Backcountry Boiler sold, I'm ashamed to say, in the UK, but it's name will not be mentioned in these pages, as such tomfoolery should be frowned upon.

BushBuddy Ultra

If there's one stove that's achieved a cult status among ultralight backpackers, it's the BushBuddy. The list of its advocates is as long as my arm (and my arms are pretty long). Nearly all of the

Nordic Lightpackers

have one, and if Hendrik's

two

reviews

don't convince you, check out the thoughts of

Jason Klass

,

Hiking Light

,

Paddling Light.

 or the

multiple 5/5 reviews on BPL

.

While it's not expressly designed for multi-fuel use, Zelph makes a nice little

Companion alcohol burner

that works with the BushBuddy. It works very well, although it is a little thirsty on fuel to get to a rolling boil. You also need a solid windscreen to make it truly effective.

The Bearable Lightness has a post about

other multi-fuel possibilities

, and another on

using the BushBuddy above treeline

.

For the ultimate in ultralight multi-fuel stovery, we need to turn to...

Trail Designs Ti-Tri Caldera Cones

&

Sidewinders

The original

Trail Designs Ti-Tri stove

 was a bit hit when it appeared a few years ago, but many complained that while the stove was great, the packing system – a plastic tube – was less efficient. Trail Designs listened to their customers and released the

TiTri ULC

, which could be custom ordered to fit your pot (hence the lack of weights here – but you can get the specs from their site; all you need to know is "it's light"). For reviews, check out

Hiking in Finland

,

Andy Howell

,

Their latest refinement of the design is the

Sidewinder Ti-Tri

, which offers a full-sized caldera cone fitted to your pot. It has proven most popular, as the following blog posts illustrate:

Jolly Green Giant

,

Journeyman Traveller,

Nielsen Brown Outdoors

,

Self Powered

, and

Pig Monkey

.

The secret to Trail Designs success is the flexibility of the system. The caldera stoves come ready to burn wood (and the "Inferno" optional extra, transforms the stoves into a stick-eating furnaces comparable to the BushBuddy –

as Roger illustrates

), alcohol (via a small burner) and esbit tabs (via the included miniscule

Gram Cracker stovelet

).

Which brings us neatly to...

Esbit Tabs

I've already admitted to never having used an Esbit tab, and my feelings about them are pretty much summed up by Brian Green and the subsequent comments on his post "

I really want to like Esbit tabs

." I feel I should like them more, but they seem a bit messy. However, I expect to be damned by the Esbit loving hoards, and therefore I encourage you to

make your own esbit stove

, read about cooking with this "

lightest, most efficient fuel

", and make sure you buy

square tabs and not round ones

. The rest is up to you.

Last but not least, we must briefly cover...

Alcohol Stoves

It's almost a rite of passage in ultralightdom to

make your own alcohol stove

. They are

easy to make

,

come in multiple forms

, and, in the right hands, make an excellent choice for long distance travel. The excellent hands I have in mind which prove this point would be those belonging to Andrew Skurka, who provides

instructions for making a stove out of a cat food can

. He used it for seven months on his

Great Western Loop

hike and

other adventures

, which, I think, is enough proof that a little goes a long way, and brings us to the end of this post.

Further Reading

More information than you can throw a cat can stove at about integrated stoves

(BPL membership required)

Links to Manufacturers

Boilerwerks

BushBuddy

Edelrid US

  (oder 

Deutschland

 - mit Flash, das is nicht gut)

JetBoil

Monatauk

Primus

Soto

Trail Designs

Zelph

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break

Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 4 - Change Your Bedding

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 4 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 bloggers.

<< Part 3: Downsize your pack

4. Change your bedding.

Backpacker

 says "If you're going to spend big on one piece of gear, make it your bag." We should, they say, aim for a three season bag/pad combo weighing 3lb / 1.36kg or less. They recommend splurging on a premium down bag to save weight and bulk, and select the

Marmot Plasma 15

($469, 1lb 14oz / 906g) and a

Pacific Outdoors [Now Hyalite] Peak Elite AC

($80, 14oz.)

The first thing that strikes me about this is:

what about quilts?

I'm surprised that

Backpacker

 only lists one recommendation for a bag; it's not that it's a bad bag, in fact it looks pretty good (if a little expensive). It's just that there are so many bags out there, and for summer use a full mummy bag might just be a bit excessive (this depends on a lot of factors though, as we'll discuss). As for a pad, the POE Peak Elite is a great three season pad – providing you can find one: it's still vary hard to find in the US almost a year after it's release, and some people who have managed to get hold of one have had manufacturing quality issues. Not a good sign, and therefore a surprising recommendation.

Backpacking North says...

Choosing a bag and pad involves balancing a complex array of factors and considerations. There are so many opposing` choices to be made: Down or synthetic? Mummy or quilt? Three-season or four? Bag combos? The variety of bags with slightly different temperature ratings, materials, and weights is overwhelming. For pads, the options are equally numerous.

A veritable plethora of bags from Montbell, WM, Big Agnes, Marmot et al at Midwest Mountaineering

The apparently infinitely variable combination of sleep systems reveals a truth about our individual requirements to achieve good night's sleep in the outdoors: everyone is different. We all feel the cold in different ways because we all have different bodies (thankfully). When choosing a sleeping system (and it is important to consider the entire system: pad, bag, bivy, pillow, clothes) only you know what you need. You can read a hundred blogs espousing the latest, greatest, lightest pad to beat all pads with a warmth rating of 5.7, and

still

feel cold at night. Or, you can be one of those lucky warm sleepers who can get by with just a scrap of tyvek. Age, body type, sleep habits, gender -– all come into play (and, incidentally, many pad and bag makers offer specific models for women, with extra insulation or padding in the hips and feet).

So, let's take a look at some of the options available to us in the hope that we can make an informed decision about what we need in our sleep system.

Bags vs. Quilts

First, the big one: do you really want or need a mummy bag (a full sleeping bag with a hood)? Many ultralight hikers today choose quilts over bags for the weight benefits and general flexibility. Quilts differ from mummy bags in that they typically do not entirely surround your body, but instead can be tucked under your body, leaving your torso in direct contact with your sleeping pad. The argument for doing this is simple – in a down mummy bag, the compressed feathers under your body offer little or no insulation anyway, so why not eliminate it altogether? As for the hood – do you really need a hood in summer? And if you do, couldn't you just wear a hat? In the event of colder temperatures, a pull-on, down hood or balaclava (such as

this one from Katabatic

) offers the same insulating effect as a mummy hood, and doubles as camp wear should you need it.

For me, the choice between a mummy bag and a quilt is far simpler and has little to do with insualtion: I'm an active side-sleeper, and I hate getting twisted and caught up in a mummy bag as I thrash around at night. Under a quilt, my body moves, but the bag stays in place. The end result? I actually sleep instead of working up an unpleasant night sweat trying to reposition the bag around me for hours on end. A quilt eliminates my sleeping issues, and saves me weight, and keeps me warm. It's also easier to throw off part of the quilt if you get too warm.

However, if you're a back sleeper and you don't move around much, a mummy bag can suit you perfectly fine. Some people simply prefer the coccoon-like coziness of a bag.

If the wasted, compressed insulation bothers you, there is a compromise between bags and quilts.

Big Agnes

, for example, make a range of

 mummy-like bags with pockets sewn underneath

for sleeping pads.

Down vs. Synthetic

It is often said that if you live in a wet climate, you choose synthetic, otherwise you choose down. To be honest, I don't think that's an entirely relevant argument any more. Water resistant materials make down bags perfectly viable in wet climates, and in any case, you should always keep your bag (down or synthetic) in some sort of waterproof stuffsack or pack liner. A wet down bag is not an option. A wet synthetic bag will still keep you warm in theory, but there's no need to test that theory just before bedtime. Your bag should be protected, whatever insulation it contains.

The second argument for down is also increasingly under challenge from new synthetic fabrics: compressibility. Although down is undoubtedly more compressible than synthetics, and re-lofts beautifullly after compression, newer synthetic fabrics approach down's compressibility – but you'll pay a premium for them. While it's possible to find a synthetic bag bargain, cheaper synthetic materials tend to be bulky and heavy.

Of course, the lighter you travel the less you'll need to compress your bag anyway. With all your new ultralight gear, and your

new pack

, you'll probably find it beneficial

not

 to compress the bag. Stuffing it loosely in a pack liner will bulk out the pack more, helping to make it a better fit and a more comfortable carry.

Next up in the down vs. synthetic war of attrition is longevity. Down bags have long been praised for still remaining fluffy and warm after 20 years use. Down bags can also be fairly easily restuffed if needed, prolonging their lifetime.

Synthetic, on the other hand, is generally considered to have a much shorter lifetime, with some materials only withstanding around 5 years of active use. It's impossible to assess the durability of newer synthetic fabrics; their longevity has not yet had time to be proven. But if you look after a down bag, your initial investment will definitely pay off, and you'll have a warm cuddly friend for a long long time. So remember – always store your sleeping bag uncompressed.

Nevertheless, synthetics have definitely improved, so don't disregard them altogether. When it comes down to it (ho ho ho), synthetic does have one benefit over down: cost. Synthetics are typically much cheaper than down bags. While cheap down bags are available, all down is not equal. Cheaper bags use lower quality feathers, rated around 550+, which means you need more of it to achieve the same amount of insulation as you would using higher rated 900+ down. The better quality the down, the more expensive the bag, and ultralight gear requires the use of the finest, warmest, loftiest down available. You can be sure that the duck that was plucked to make your ultralight quilt was from the highest European stock.

Synthetics, on the other hand, are manufactured in bulk, are cheaper to reproduce, and they don't need feeding, unlike those greedy ducks. Although hi-tech synthetic materials can get costly, they are still much cheaper than down.

Personally, I generally lean towards down with one exception: synthetic quilts make an excellent choice as a winter overbag. As this series of articles focuses mainly on summer/three-season use, I'll leave that topic for you to research for yourself (you can check out 

Fjäderlatt

, and 

Thunder in the Night

 for more info on this subject).

A constructive note for down

Another important thing to consider in choosing a down bag is the way that the chambers containing the down have been constructed. Ultralight summer bags are likely to be simply stitched through, trapping a single layer of down in one area. This is fine, but the stitching will have next to no insulating ability. Compare this to a colder rated bag, in which the down is contained in overlapping chambers (a baffled construction) - so there are no cold spots from  seams. You can

read a lot more about technical aspects of baffle construction here

 and

here

.

Temperature ratings

Just how low will your bag or quilt go? Manufacturers' temprarture ratings have been notoriously unreliable – especially the more mainstream, cheaper options. Recently, manufacturers have been adopting the European rating system, the catchily named EN 13537, which gives a clearer indication of a bag's warmth by giving separate ratings for different extremes of temperature use.

  • Upper Limit — the temperature at which a standard man can sleep without excessive perspiration. 
  • Comfort — the temperature at which a standard woman can expect to sleep comfortably in a relaxed position.
  • Lower Limit — the temperature at which a standard man can sleep for eight hours in a curled position without waking.
  • Extreme — the minimum temperature at which a standard woman can remain for six hours without risk of death from hypothermia (though frostbite is still possible).

It's a useful system, if still a little confusing (hey, this

is

 the EU) as the upper and lower limits describe men, while comfort and extreme describe women. And what is a standard man? Apparently he is 25 years old, 1.73 meters high, and weighs 73kg. Maybe that explains why I sleep cold – I just don't live up to standards. A standard woman, incidentally, is also 25, but only 1.6m tall, and a mere slip of a lass at 60kg. Everyone else is considered non-standard and a failure. At least you now know where you stand.

If only life were that simple. You should treat sleeping bag ratings as indicators. Generally it's wise to get a bag rated a little lower than the typical temps you expect. My summer quilt, for example, is rated fairly accurately to -7ºC. While that might seem a little extreme for summer, I know I sleep cold, and I know that Lapland nights can easily drop close to zero C, so it's a suitable bag.

While it's wise to err on the side of caution when buying a bag or quilt, there is another way to travel with a lighter, higher rated bag, and improvise your way to warmth...

Clothing as part of a sleep system

There was a time when I would strip down to my undies, ready for a good night's sleep in the wild. It was a habit that was hard to kick, but a very impractical one. Temperatures would drop at night, I'd inevitably have to pee after drinking all the whiskey, and I'd end up shivering in the dark cursing the day I decided to go hiking.

The solution: wear your clothes to bed. It's a much more flexible and modular approach that can extend the warmth rating of your bag. If you wake up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature, you're not going to freeze in the process. In the morning, it's up and away – you no longer have to curl up in your bag in denial of the fact that at some point you'll have to brave that unseasonably chilly air. You're already dressed.

Wear a light down jacket to bed, and a hat, and you have no need for the confining space of a mummy bag. Clothed, under a quilt, you can add or remove layers to increase or decrease warmth. If it gets really cold, put everything on. Your 10ºC bag just became part of a -2ºC sleep system. By taking this modular approach you save weight, and possibly money (although you'll probably end up spending a fortune on cool, hi-tech clothing).

I wouldn't recommend leaping straight into wearing your clothes as part of a sleep system without first being certain of your body temperature at night and having a pretty good idea of how warm you need to be. Better to start with a warmer bag or quilt and find your comfort levels first. you can always sell it later and get a lighter one (

see part 1 for used gear sites

).

A caveat: don't wear clothes you've been cooking in if you're in evil bear country. You know that right?And be aware that oils and dirt from clothes (and skin) will over time reduce the breathability of your bag – so keep it clean with some Nikwax or other down/synthetic cleaning product.

Wearable Quilts

For the ultimate in multi-use, ultralight quiltery, how about one you can wear?

Jacks'R'Better

 (warning: painfully bad web design) make a range of quilts that you can adapt into down outerwear. It's a neat and radical idea, although don't expect to win any awards on the catwalk (duckboards?).

The rest of the system: Pads, Pillows, and Bivy Bags

In most climates, even in summer you will want some form of barrier between you and the ground. Fortunately, the warmer months allow us to pick from a selection of super lightweight air mattresses. Many now feature innovative forms of reflective insulation allowing them to be pushed into colder weather, and even into winter when combined with a decent, thick closed cell foam pad. The pad can also be used to give structure to your pack.

When choosing a pad, consider your sleeping style, and try out a few in a store if you can. I started out with a NeoAir, but found the horizontal baffles led me to roll off the pad all the time. After switching to a vertical baffle pad I had much sweeter dreams.

You can save some weight by choosing a short pad, or even 2/3 or 1/2 length pad, and using your empty pack under your legs. It's a nice idea, but I find it makes me feel like my legs are hanging off a ledge, and reduces my blood circulation. A lot of this depends on how thick your pad is – it might work better with thinner CCF pads.

Pillows are a contentious item. Some swear by them, others insist you should use your spare clothes in a stuff sack. But what if you're wearing your clothes as part of a sleep system? No excuses! Use your shoes! I gave in and started to take a pillow with me.

We dealt with Byvy Bags in briefly in

part 3

, and they too form an essential part of your sleep system, especially if you are in an open tarp. Many bags come in breathable waterproof/repellant materials these days (Pertex Quantum and eVent being favourites), but for more serious protection, a Bivy will keep your sleeping bag dry.

One tip: when you put all these slippery fabrics together – bags/quilts, pads, pillows, bivvies – you'll find things tend to slip around a lot. Dabs of SilNet silicone sealant applied to the base of your pad and perhaps pillow help to reduce this annoying slippage. Avoiding slopes also helps. Some bivy bags feature stake out points which, if stitched well, will help to hold everything in place.

What does Backpacking North use?

First, I wouldn't say that my sleep system is perfect. Finding the right combination of gear for your needs – one that is flexible enough to cope with all conditions, environments, and seasons – is a long proces of trial an error. All I can talk about is what I currently use, and what other gear I am considering to add to the system.

Sleep system action shot

My main summer quilt is the

GoLite Ultralight 3-Season

, a great starter quilt available at a reasonable price ($275). At 837g (long) it's not the lightest, but I like that it has a tougher, waterproof, foot box and shoulder sections. These are great for use under a tarp or DuoMid. It's rated to -7ºC, which I find to be fairly accurate, and is filled with 800+ down. The previous version of this quilt – the Ultralight 20 – was lighter. GoLite has an odd tendency recently of increasing their weights with each release, but at $275 the current medel is at least reasonably priced (that is, compared to some other manufacturers).

My other bag is a

Western Mountaineering Antelope MF

, rated to -15ºC, and weighing 1160g. Western Mountaineering are the standard bearers for high quality down mummy bags. The Antelope is a little wider in the shoulder, which makes it more suited to side-sleepers, thrashers, and the broad shouldered. In winter, I prefer to be fully enclosed against draughts, and for Lapland temps I need a decent bag (alhtough the Antelope is classified as a three-season, I rarely go out in extreme temps (say, -30ºC). If I did, or expected significantly lower temperatures I could always take the GoLite quilt as an overbag, and wear all my clothes. For the two or three nights a year I'm likely to be out in extremely cold weather, I simply can't justify spending a fortune on a -40ºC bag. I'd rather stay at home and eat cakes.

I'd love to go lighter with both bags, but where I'd really like to improve is in developing a complete and flexible system. The GoLite is fine, but for summer, I could probably manage with a synthetic quilt, which could then double as a winter overbag (as per the

Johannson/Newton method

). Without going into too much detail, a synthetic overbag in winter is a wiser choice than a down because escaping moisture  gets trapped in the synthetic material, which, unlike wet down, will still keep you warm.

So, my ideal would be a light, compressible summer bag rated to a few degrees below 0ºC, combined with the Antelope. The new

MLD Spirit 28

would be a prime contender.

I'm not totally ruling out a down quilt for winter (Katabatic have some very nice ones, as we'll see) but right now I prefer being nicely tuckedin in extreme cold. As I've mentioned a couple of times, finding the right gear is all about knowing what you require, and what is appropriate for the environment. I'd be willing to try a winter quilt, but the cost of purchasing one only to find I don't like it puts me off.

As for a bivy bag, I use  

Katabatic Bristlecone

, which I find

just about perfect

.

Katabatic Bristlecone detail

I tried a TiGoat Ptarmigan, and had a catastrophic mosquito netting failure with it. The Katabatic replaces this and I'm extremely happy with it.

For a pillow, after trying the clothes-in-a-stuffsack approach, the spare water canteen approach, and a KookaBay inflatable, I settled on a nice

ExPed Air Pillow

– it's cheap, it's light (78g) it's soft, it's shapely, and with a little bit of shock cord it can be easily attached to a sleeping pad. Most importantly, it seems ideal for a side sleeper, and I sleep very well on it. I love the plush, subtly soft feel of the material – so much nicer than plain nylon.

Exped Air Pillow

Lastly, the sleeping pad. I'm currently using a POE Ether Elite 6, which is no longer available (and wasn't available for long anyway). The replacement, the Peak Elite AC, is also hard to find (virtually impossible outside the UK), and seems to suffer from leaking issues – which is a shame as it's a great pad: light, warm, with verticle baffles to keep you nicely centered.

What do others use?

Normally, when looking at other blogger's favorite pieces of gear, it's quite easy to recognize popular trends and identify clear winners. Not so with sleeping systems. Each person has developed their own preferences. However, there are a few items which have managed to raise their heads above the crowds, and find their way into the kit of more than one individual.

MLD Spirit 28-38-48º Sybthetic Quilt

 (formerly Spirit 30)

MLD's synthetic Spirit quilt is a favorite of several bloggers.

Martin Rye

uses one, and

Joe Newton

's forms part of his four-season go anywhere system. Now coming in three versions for different temperatures, it's one of two quilts I'm seriously considering.

Joe Newton enjoying a break in his MLD Spirit 30 (photo courtesy Joe Newton / Thunder int he Night). 

Western Mountaineering

Megalite

/

Ultralight

 (and other) down bags

Reoger over at

Nielsen Brown Outdoors

uses a Megalite, and Joe's Ultralight forms the other half of his bag/quilt system. Western Mountaineering make fantastic bags, with plenty of variation in temperature ranges, materials, and girth. They are very well made, and expensive – and sadly sales are very rare online. Check out the whole range of bags in the

ExtremeLite

series, but don't ignore the rest of the range – many of the

Microfiber series

are close in weight to the ExtremeLite range.

MontBell U.L. Super Spiral Down Huggers

bags

Fraser McAlister

reminded me about these. They are an interesting mummy design: the stitching is elasticated a little, making them another potential good choice if you like to thrash around at night, or have a hump.

BPL reviewed one

a while back (membership required)

Katabatic Gear down quilts

New on the scene, but rapidly gaining popularity, are Katabatic's range of quilts, the Chisos (40ºF), Palisade (30ºF), Aslek (22ºF), Sawatch (15ºF), and Blackwelder (0ºF). Combined with one of their down hoods, they make an excellent choice for quiltily inclined. The

Sawatch got the coveted Backpacking Light Highly Recommended rating

 (membership required).

GoLite Ultralite 3 Season down quilt.

A great and popular starter quilt, available at a reasonable price (compared to others, at least).

Currently on sale at a real bargain price

, if you can get one, it's s a great place to start a love affair with quilts.

Jacks'R'Better down quilts

Jacks'R'Better have a very good reputation among the cognoscenti.

Phil Turner

(a Stealth) loves them, ultralight lovebirds 

Helen Fisher

(a Rocky Mountain) and

Thomas Gauperaa

(a Sierra) both have one, and the Backpacking Light forums are full of people singing their praises. The all-time classic is the No Sniveller  (

BPL review)

- a wearable quilt which offers great flexibility and will surely make you the talking point around camp. I think it is now called the

Sierra Sniveler

, but it's hard to tell with such a terribly designed website.

Nunatak down quilts and mummy bags

The choice for the eilte ultralighter, Nunatak are to quilts what Western Mountaineering are to mummy bags. Their

Arc Alpinist

is their most popular model, rated to 20ºF.

Trailblaze reviewed it

.

Ray Jardine Ray-Way Quilt Kit

The quilt that started it all - now available in kit form.

Sleeping Mats.

A couple of years ago, the Therm-a-Rest Neo Air was the discerning ultralight backpackers air mat of choice. One of the first in a range of new mats featuring an internal heat-reflective layer, the NeoAir was both light and warm, Unfortunately it was also a bit noisy and a little uncomfortable. It's recently been replaced by a heavier, but warmer version, the

NeoAir All Season

, (560g) 

which Phil reviewed

 earlier this year.

Shortly after the original NeoAir was introduced, Pacific Outdoor Equipment released the Ether Elite 6, featuring localized insulation, a lighter weight, and a lighter price. Sadly, it was hard to get hold of outside the US, and was replaced, after one year, by the Peak Elite AC, which soon also became hard to find. Recently POE was bought out by Hyalite, and the

Peak Elite AC 

(396g) now lives on under their brand. The AC ups the ante over the Elite 6 by including a reflective layer

and

localised insulation. Unfortunately this is hard to find in the US, but Phil in the UK got hold of one and made a

video review

. A few people have had problems with air leaks (e.g.,

Ken / I'm going for a scuttle

, and Mark at 

Mark's Walking Blog

) so hopefully POE's next ultralight air mattress will be even better and more universally available.

Exped make a range of lightweight synthetically insulated mats, and the

SynMat UL7

(480g) gets positive reviews  from 

Dondo

 and 

Mark's Walking Blog

.  I like Exped's inflation/deflation system (one valve for each) and the fact that they have eye-holes for attaching their lovely air pillows.

A new pad with an unusual design has been doing the rounds, the

Klymit Inertia

 series, skimpy pads  which shave off weight by including free holes.

It's a radical design, and I've not heard of many people using one. In fact, until I saw a photo today of one used

inside

 a sleeping bag, the whole idea seemed a bit daft, but in theory, an in-bag pad with holes 

might

 make allow some of down under your body to fluff up and provide some insulation. The

Klymit Inertia X-Frame

pictured above weighs 258g.

Hardcore UL'ers like to use half or 2/3 pads to save even more weight, using their packs and other items under their legs as simple insulation from the ground. It saves some weight, but I value what little luxury I can get from my sleep system, and a full pad gives me a better night's sleep.

You can save weight by just carrying a closed cell foam pad, although your comfort might be compromised. When I was younger I'd happily sleep on just a rolled up CCF mat, but those days are long gone. If you're still supple and flexible, you could do worse than looking into

Multimat's

collection of foam mats (and even if you're not supple, they are worth looking at for additional Winter insulation). the Multimat Adventure weighs in at 190g, for example.

For a more thorough examination and comparison of current (2011) air mats, see

Backpacking Light's state of the market report

(membership required).

Bivy Bags, briefly

The

Katabatic Bristlecone

has received plaudits from

Joe

, Roger (

Nielsen Brown

),

myself

, and others.

MLD

made a very popular range of bivies. Checking their (recently hacked) site I only see the

Superlight

now, so I'm not sure if they have scaled back the models of if the site is still in recovery.

Further Info:

Hiking in Finland has a

great post on quilts

Joe's post on a

flexible 4-season sleeping system

Mummy bag state of the market report

@ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Lightweight inflatable air mats report 2011

 @ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Unconventional Sleep Systerms Review and Gear Guide

@ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Unconventional Sleep Stsyems Manifesto

 @ Backpacking Light (membership required)

Links to manufactures

Big Agnes

Feathered Friends

GoLite

Jacks'R'Better

Katabatic Gear

Klymit

Montbell

Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD)

Multimat

Nunatek

PHD

RAB

Ray Jardine

Western Mountaineering

Yeti

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break

Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 3 - Ditch Your Dome

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 3 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 bloggers.

<< Part 2: Downsize your pack

3. Ditch your dome.

According to

Backpacker

, the dome tent is "the low-hanging fruit of an ultralight makeover." I have no idea what that means, unless it implies that reducing the weight of your shelter is an easily reachable goal. The magazine correctly points out that you can cut your shelter weight by a half or more by switching to a lighter alternative, and suggests a tarp as the lightest option with the highest space-to-weight ratio. You can't argue with that.

Their recommendations include the 

Integral Designs SilWing tarp

($110, 12oz, 56 sq.ft.), or the

GoLite Shangri-La 2 floorless shelter

($225, 1lb 10oz, 45 sq.ft). For the tent aficionado, they propose a

NEMO Meta 2p

($225, 2lbs. 15 oz., 36 sq.ft.), or a

Mountain Hardware Lightpath 2 hoop tent

($175, 3lbs 15oz, 30 sq. ft.).

Setting aside the Lightpath 2 for the moment, which surely must only be present for some kind of sponsorship obligation, their suggestions are not that bad. The SilWing is a pretty good tarp, if a little trickier to erect than other designs. The Shangri-La 2 is also respected, as we'll see later. I've never seen a NEMO Meta 2p, nor heard of anyone using one. To me it looks over-designed, and from what I can tell, it would be easy to achieve the same result for less weight with a tarp and an inner.

In any case, some interesting suggestions – but are they the best? Let's look deeper into dome-ditching to find out...

Backpacking North

says...  

The good old dome tent! Roomy. Stable. Easy to erect and move around. Or is it? Is it really any more roomy than some of the other options available to us? Yes, it's stable – especially if it's got a nice geodesic structure – but complex structures come with a price: poles. Lots of them. Big, dangly, fold-away poles, held together with elastic cord, featuring

bizarrely complicated joints

and

awnings

to create as

sci-fi a shape

as possible (I know not all of those examples are strictly dome tents, but as a generalisation, you get my point). Then, of course, there are lots and lots of tie downs and guy cords to make sure your easily moveable shelter doesn't, well,

easily move

.

Mainstream manufacturers release a veritable plethora of tents every year, all designed to appeal to our senses and impress us with their technological ingenuity and perfection. I suppose the idea is that the more high-tech they are, the more we are likely to feel secure in them at night. Their latest tent will be the perfect shelter for all your needs, and hey, it's ulttralight at 5lbs! 

In reality, of course, there is no perfect shelter. There are only shelters appropriate for your needs, for the environment and climate you will be in, the time of year, the expected conditions, the amount of bugs etc. Traditional tents tend to be ridiculously over-engineered. You really do not need a double-walled tent with integrated bathtub floor and separate groundsheet/footprint to protect that floor. Traditional tents also weigh a ton. They are often not particularly well constructed, and with an abundance of seams it's inevitable that they will leak. And yet they remain so attractive... 

For an ultralight approach, we need to embrace a shift in values; we must accept that

all that extra stuff

 is not needed. A shelter can be simple. In fact, that is precisely what the name suggests: it is a

shelter

, not a second home. It must protect you, keep you dry, offer you a place to hang out in poor conditions, and, ideally, not take up 75% of your pack weight (and space).

So let's begin by simplifying the structure. Instead of two walls (one to keep out the rain or moisture, another to keep out the rain or moisture that the first one doesn't keep out), can we manage with one? 

One wall or two? 

We've been told we need two walls in a tent to keep out condensation, and provide an additional layer of protection from rain. But is condensation really all that bad? It only becomes a problem when you come into contact with it, or when so much is produced it splatters off when pounded by rain. In order to reduce condensation, tents are designed with ventilation flaps and other contrivances to encourage airflow. With that taken into consideration, what if, instead of fighting condensation, we simply accept it as part of the experience? Then we quite literally open up our shelter options.

Most ultralight shelters are single wall, floorless designs, either in the shape of tarps (essentially a sheet of material suspended as you choose to create an open shelter), or in the form of an enclosed (i.e. zippered) or semi-enclosed pyramid-style structure. There are many variations on these two designs, but in principle tarps and pyramids make a simplified categorisation.

But what about condensation?

To which I say: So what about condensation? Yes, it happens, somewhat inevitably. 

Because tarps and pyramids are designed to be open or raised shelters, there is plenty of airflow through them. But you will still get condensation from the temperature differential between your shelter material and the air. 

You don't even need to be in or under it to find moisture building up on the iside of your tarp (for much more info on condensation 

see the link to a Backpacking Light article at the end of this post)

Typically, the amount of condensation

 is nothing a micro-towel or a good shake can't deal with, then when you pack up camp you simply stuff the shelter into the outside mesh pocket of

your new ultralight backpack

, and hit the trail. You can always stop to dry it off if the sun is shining.

As for protecting your gear whilst you're inside the shelter, often there is so much room under your shelter that it simply isn't an issue. If you do brush up against it, it's not usually enough to wet out your nice fluffy down sleeping bag – which is what we really want to avoid. Some bags and quilts have a heavier duty material on the footbed and shoulder areas, or are constructed entirely out of a more water resistant material, and can be used under a tarp without the need for additional protection.

However, to be on the safe side, many ultralighters take along a bivy to use under the tarp or in their shelter. This adds a layer of protection against condensation, and the ingress of rain and/or bugs.  Bivy bags typically weigh very little – far less than an inner tent – and, assuming you have a fairly good idea of the weather conditions, offer the flexibility of sleeping inside them without erecting a shelter overhead. When you combine a bivy bag (or bug inner) with a tarp or pyramid you effectively have a very flexible, modular system: a kind of two-wall shelter, that you can adapt to different situations and conditions.

It is this flexibility or use which we seek in the ultralight world. Why be limited to the defined design of a tent when you can have multiple shelter options with you: tarp only, tarp and bivy for rain/bug seasons, bivy only, or tarp and bug inner if you live in particularly hellish mosquito country. You carry with you the best of all worlds, and can adapt to the situation with ease.

So to summarize: don't fear condensation. When you think about how it magically forms out of thin air, it's quite a beautiful thing. When you consider that some tarps weigh a mere 200g (7oz)

or less,

  even after adding the weight of stakes, cord, and seam sealer, you might still have shaved off up to 4 lbs (2 kg) from your load. Not bad.

How about no walls at all?

The logical extension of all this is to skip the shelter altogether if you know the weather is going to be fine. That's a nice idea, but I have yet to go hiking anywhere where the weather is 100% predictable. Even in desert climates I'd still take a simple tarp as shelter, and sleep under the stars only if conditions seemed appropriate. If it does rain, at least I have shelter. The weight of a tarp is a small price to pay for safety.

Sorry, did you say floorless?

In a tent, you usually have a floor. Then often another floor to protect that floor from the ground. With a tarp or pyramid shelter, there is far less between you and Mother Earth. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, the main advantage being, of course, less to carry. The main disadvantage is an increase in condensation, but this is largely compensated for by the open, ventilated designs of the shelters – and anyway, we just learned not to fear condensation anyway! Love it for what it is!

Personally, I think that it is precisely the proximity to nature offered by tarps and pyramid shelters that is their main attraction. To wake up under a tarp and see morning mist rising off dew-covered ground is something quite special. Throw in a couple of deer cavorting in a nearby dell, and you have an idyllic scene to accompany your morning oatmeal. Why hide away in a tent when the whole point of being outside is to be in nature. Under a tarp you are much closer to the environment, and your experience will be all the better for it.

Nevertheless, sometimes we need a little protection from the elements. It would be a shame to have to camp on less-than-ideal ground and get mud, sand, or moisture in our gear. The simplest solution is to carry a small sheet of

polycryo

or

tyvek

to provide a barrier between you and whatever surface you camp on. It need only be a little larger than your sleeping bag, and weighs next to nothing. Another option is to simply use a bivy; most have a more durable, waterproof material on the base.

A typical tarp setup: SpinnTwinn and LT4 poles, Katabatic Bristlecone bivy, polycryo sheet, z-lite section.

Naturally, as with any tent, you'll probably want some form of insulating barrier between you and the ground to keep you comfortable and warm in the night. This will most likely take the shape of an air or closed-cell foam pad – and we'll look at those and some alternatives in part 4.

Ah, but I live in bug country...

There are several ways to cope with bugs. Many summer bivy bags feature a bug window. Tie the bivy hood up to the top of the tarp, zip up the hood, and sleep in peace. Some bags feature a larger area which can be suspended or raised to give a less claustrophobic feeling. For the ultimate in luxury, and in my opinion indispensable in places such as Lapland and Minnesota, a solo-sized mesh bug inner will keep the bugs at bay and give you a little room to keep your sanity intact. There are as many bug inner designs as there are tarps and pyramids, so check out the manufacturer links at the end if you are blighted by bugs.

Aren't tarps hard to pitch?

Honestly, tarps and 'mids are no more difficult to pitch than any other tent. I'd even go so far as to say they are easier. A couple of stakes, some tensioning, maybe (but not necessarily) a knot, and you'll have a shelter more taut than any dome.

So which are better then, tarps or pyramids?

Neither. It all depends on where you'll be going and the conditions you expect. Tarps offer great flexibility: hang them high for palatial roominess, or hunker down to the ground in bad weather. They are more suited to forested areas or low country – they are not really intended to withstand very high winds. 

Pyramids on the other hand are great for variable climates and/or winter use, but can still be opened up to create a lean-to like shelter. They also offer plenty of headroom if, like me, you are on the tall side. They shed wind better and, as they are surprisingly sturdy, can be used more readily in open spaces.

Are there any other options?

If you really can't stomach the idea of a single wall shelter, there are a few well regarded ultralight tents out there. Using simpler, lighter materials, they offer the same comforts as traditional tents but usually with a higher price tag. Alternatively, how about a hammock? There are a couple of ultralight hammocks with integrated bug netting, and a tarp rain fly for around 700g. Pretty good, if that's how you hang...

All right then, you've convinced me. So what do you use?

My journey towards using ultralight shelters was probably fairly typical. A few years ago, I was in InterSport in Rovaniemi, and made an impulse purchase of a Haglöfs Genius 21 dome tent.

A big, heavy Haglöfs Genius 2 in a very nice setting.

It was spectacular. I loved it. Small, Norwegian pensioners admired it at the top of large Norwegian mountains. It weighed a ton! Remember the

343 principle I wrote about in part 1

? The Genius 21 weighs 4kg (8.8lb)! Not so genius after all. Sure it could fit 2.1 people (go figure), and when split between two it wasn't quite so bad to carry. But When I took it on a solo hike with my dog (who, incidentally, refused to carry half of it; so much for man's best friend) I was utterly exhausted. Great tent though. Tough. Reliable. Green. I

took it to Utah

last year with a friend. It was such a pain to pitch in the high winds blowing down from Forty Mile Ridge. So much for the ease and simplicity of a dome. (Well, to be fair, it would have been hard to pitch anything on slickrock with a storm raging.)

Just before moving to Minnesota, I decided I wouldn't carry such a ridiculous weight with me ever again, and went in search of a solo tent. After reading recommendations in

Colin Walker

's and

Chris Townsend

's books, I plumped for a

Hilleberg Akto

.

The Hilleberg Akto in stealth mode. Can you spot it? It's behind the tree.

Perfect for one man and his dog. And much lighter than the Genius at 1.4kg (3lbs 2oz). Today, that seems to me like a fairly heavy shelter, but if you compare it to

Backpacker

's Lightpath 2 recommendation, it's about 13 oz lighter (albeit for a solo tent). I still like the Akto. It has great nostalgia value for me. It's a great tent for Lapland, and good in winter. It's cozy and very well made. But sadly now I rarely use it.

When I finally decided to truly go ultralight, I took a dive off the deep end and purchased a Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn.

The Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn. Now that's what I call a taut pitch. And just look at that catenary curve!

A simple tarp, made out of spinnaker fabric, (used, like cuben fiber, for yacht sails). When it arrived through my post box, I couldn't stop grinning. It weighs 300g, seam sealed, with cords attached. Let me repeat that:

300g

(something like 10oz) – and that's for the two person SpinnTwinn. That's 3700g lighter than the Genius 21. Or 1100g lighter than the Akto. It felt as if weighed nothing at all. I still laugh deliriously when I think about this. I'm doing it now.

And the fact is, it's a great shelter. Simple to pitch, easy to re-pitch and modify if the weather changes. Beautiful. Elegant. Its taut catenary curve is truly something to behold. To see the world slipping into darkness under it is so soothing. To wake up under it is an invigorating delight. I feel more a part of nature under the SpinnTwinn than I do in any other shelter. Admittedly, compared to a really basic rectangular tarp (without a catenary curve) it is a little limited in pitching options (or at least, you need some creativity and skill) but I love it. It achieves everything I need.

So why did I need to go and buy a DuoMid?

Well, under a SpinnTwinn in bug country you are going to want some protection. A bivy is fine, but a little limiting. Also, I wanted something for the more exposed conditions of Lapland, and something that I could use in winter – something, in other words, with a door. The SpinnTwinn is great but in a snowstorm... no thanks.

My Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid has a bug netting perimeter to keep the worst of the mosquitoes at bay, and can be pitched high or low for additional space. It is already huge, with more than enough room to sit or half stand. Pitch it high and it becomes palatial. Open the doors wide and it's like my own personal laavu (lean-to). I can shut out the wind and the snow. I can cook inside. I can fit all my gear in and still have room to lounge around. It's light – 614g – still 3400g lighter than the Genius 21, and like the SpinTwin pitches perfectly with my trekking poles (just one, in fact). Plus it has one additional feature...

It's bright yellow.

Sunny, yellow, DuoMid, joy joy.

There's a lot to be said for blending into the landscape, but there's a lot more to be said for waking up under a sunny yellow pyramid of joy. These days, I reach for my DuoMid more than any other shelter when heading out. Although sleeping under a tarp is wonderful, there is something about the DuoMid that just feels

right

. It might not be the lightest pyramid or tarp, and I will definitely need a really good bug inner to truly cope with the summer mosquitoes in Lapland that will push the weight up a little more, but sometimes, you know... weight isn't everything. I'm still carrying less than ever before. I'm protected from the elements. And I'm happy. And that's what counts.

For a bivy I use a

Katabatic Gear Bristlecone

 (200g / 7oz) – a truly great bivy with plenty of room for all-year-round use, and a huge 180º bug netting window. As it has a waterproof floor, so I don't really need a ground sheet, but I generally take a 46g / 1.6oz sheet of 

polycryo

, just in case.

As I mentioned earlier, the shelter you choose must suit your needs and the environment you most often hike in. No one shelter will be perfect for every situation. What's good for Lapland is overkill for Utah. When you're choosing a ultralight shelter, try and take a look at what ultralighters in your neck of the woods are using. It's highly likely that their gear choices will be appropriate for you. And with that thought in mind...

What do other people use?

While researching this article, I was amazed how many tarp configurations are available from different manufacturers. MLD, for example, offers seven versions of a simple rectangular tarp (and that's before we even get into TrailStars). As the emphasis of the

Ultralight Makeover

series is on proven gear, I'll once again be focusing on exactly that: gear which other bloggers and hikers regularly use and recommend.

Tarps

If there's one thing to say about buying a tarp it's this: size up. They're so light you can afford the luxury of a two person shelter, and when you are stuck under one for a day you'll be glad you did. The weight penalty of choosing a two person tarp over a solo is usually negligible compared to the benefits of larger coverate.

Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn

Probably the most popular tarp around, perhaps because it is so easy to set up. With just a couple of trekking poles (I use

Gossamer Gear's LT4

poles which are a match made in heaven) you'll have it up in under five minutes. The catenary curve limits its pitching options a little more than a straight cut tarp, but creates a very taut pitch that rain just trickles off. The taut pitch is important as spinnaker is a fairly noisy material, and a well stretched pitch will limit any unpleasant nocturnal flapping (from the tarp... other wind noises are your own problem). I recommend switching out the provided spectracore line for a slightly thicker (maybe 2mm) cord. I find spectracore stretches when wet, causing the line to slip in the corner and side linelocs. The SpinnTwinn weighs a mere 238g before seam sealing and without the cords attached, and costs $175.

Gossamer Gear also make a more enclosed, solo version (the

SpinnShelter

), and a super light cuben fiber version, the

CubicTwinn

, weighing just 156g, but costing $335. For the most bang for your buck, you can't beat the SpinnTwinn.

Backpacking Light

 gave the SpinnTwinn a coveted "highly recommended" rating,

which you can read with a membership subscription here

. The ubiquitous

Mr. Morkel also liked his

, at least until he got a...

Hyperlight Mountain Gear Echo I / Echo II

The HMG Echo is a nice modular tarp system. It takes the traditional rectangular tarp design and adds a few elements to make it more suitable for a range of conditions. The tarp itself is not dissimilar to the SpinnTwinn or CubicTwinn, but the accessories make it an interesting shelter.

The beak

 encloses the front, and

the inner

transforms it into an integrated double-wall, bug-free shelter. As with all cuben fiber gear, it's a bit pricey at $270 for the Echo I, and $295 for the Echo II. As there's only a 1oz difference between the two (the Echo II tarp comes in at 9oz / 255g incl. lines) once again it pays to get the larger size.

I like the look of it, and so do

Hendrik

and

Benjamin

.

Phil

even thinks the beak can be used as a mini tarp, but then he likes dressing up as a penguin.

Many of the ultralight tarps use exotic materials and designs, and consequently cost a lot of money. However, if you're on a budget, there are a lot of basic rectangular tarps which in some ways are more flexible as they offer an almost infinite variety of pitching options. While writing this article,

Tookie

recommended a 

Alpkit Rig 7 tarp

, which weighs 497g / 17.5oz, seems like a pretty good deal at around  £45.

In-betweenies

There is one shelter that has risen in popularity recently that, being semi-enclosed but doorless, doesn't fit into either of the main categories:

MLD TrailStar

Falling somewhere between an open tarp and a pyramid shelter, Mountain Laurel Design's TrailStar has proven very popular, especially it seems with people in the UK. It might well be that its combination of luxurious space, simplicity of pitching, and the open "alcove"style entrance is perfect for the inclement British weather. Many people claim that its wind-shedding abilities are unsurpassed, and it certainly looks very sturdy for its 16oz / 450g of silnylon. It's a good example of a shelter that suits a particular climate, I think, and I'd hesitate to make it my main shelter in Lapland where, as it were, I need closure.

For persuasive arguments in its favour, seek out

Summit and Valley

,

Colin Ibbottson

, and

Steven Horner

. If you want to see how easy it is to pitch, check out this awesome video at

The Pain Cave

.

Pyramid Shelters

Basically, a tarp with a door, constructed typically (but not always) around a single pole to create a super-sturdy single-wall shelter. Not all are pyramid shaped, but it serves as a good indicative categorization.

MLD DuoMid

By far the most popular pyramid shelter of them all, Mountain Laurel Designs knocked out another winner with the DuoMid. With their excellent construction and array of build-to-order options, the DuoMid is, perhaps, an ideal shelter. Pitch it open, pitch it low, get it with a bug netting perimeter, use it in winter (although it'll take longer to pitch) – it's such a good all-rounder. 16oz in silnylon, 12 oz in cuben fiber. But don't take my word for it. Witness the joys of yellow, grey and white at

Thunder in the Night

,

Nielsen Brown Outdoors

,

Andy Howell

, and

Section Hiker

.

As with rectangular tarps, the are many imitation DuoMids out there, so check the links at the end for other (often more readily available) options (e.g., Locus Gear).

GoLite Shangri-La 2

 &

Shangri-La 3

Look! The same pick as

Backpacker!

 The Shangri-La, a twin-pole, single wall, pyramid-ish shelter gets a good testing from

Nielsen Brown Outdoors

 who was very happy with its performance in Lapland recently.

Alpinist

like it too.

If I really wanted to carry 2 to 3lbs of shelter, rather than

Backpacker's

 choice of the Nemo, I'd go for the

Shangri-La 3

 – a teepee style construction that offers a huge amount of space for the weight (2lb 7oz / 1.13kg) and has undergone something of a resurgence in 2013. It's now sold with the mesh inner, for a complete (and fairly reasonable) weight of 4lbs 5oz. / 1.93kg. Find out more at

Bill's Magical Mystery Tour

, or 

Mud and Routes

.

Until GoLite return to the EU, those of us living in Europe should take a look at the

Eureka!/Nigor WickiUp SUL 3

– a direct copy of the SL3 with arguably superior material construction.

Double-Wall Tents

There is one clear winner in the double-wall popularity contest:

Terra Nova Laser Competition

 and

Laser Comp 2

Clearly riffing off the Hilleberg Akto, the Laser Comp (930g) gets a recommended rating from

Backpacking LIght

(members only).

The cuben fiber version, the

Laser Ultra 1

, also gets a

recommended rating from BPL

, a rave review from

Petesy

, and some criticism from

Colin Ibbotson

. If you can afford the £650 or $699 for the 580g of the world's lightest double wall shelter, then you are both wealthier, luckier, and no doubt happier than I.

Lesser mortals might instead choose a...

Tartpent Scarp 1

 & 

2

Once all the rage, now not so much (perhaps owing to some reported quality issues), Henry Shires Tarptent Scarp  (1 = 1.36kg / 48oz; 2 =  1.7kg / 60oz) got a

recommended at BPL

, a favourable review at

Blogpacking Light

, hesitant approval from

Section Hiker

, and tainted love from

Backpacking Bongos

.

Lastly, Gossamer Gear used to make a popular little 1lb tent called

The One

 for fans of The Matrix. Sadly due to manufacturing problems they appear to have discontinued it.

Single Wall Tents

Favourites with alpinists and winter ski-tourers for their quick erections (the tent, not the climber/skier, although having said that...), the current belle of the single wall would be the...

Black Diamond Firstlight

Certainly overkill for summer, it makes a great, rapidly deployed winter shelter, when you really don't want to be messing around with snow anchors and DuoMids unless you've already lost all your toes to frostbite. Check it out at

Alpinist

,

BPL

(still members only, sorry),

Section Hiker

(of course), and

Thunder in the Night

. But watch out, Black Diamond...

Mountain Hardwear has been spying on you...

Hammocks

Two hammocks stand tall (if a hammock do that) above the rest: the 

Hennessey Hyperlight Aysm Classic

 (1lb 9oz / 700g), and the 

Warbonnet BlackBird

 (weights vary, but around 24oz / 680g). I know nothing about Hammocks, but you can read reviews from users at Backpacking Light:

Hennessey

/

Warbonnet

. If you are interested,

Hammock Forums

is a good place to begin your research.

Poncho Tarps

While I wouldn't recommend the uninitiated leaping with both feet into poncho tarp camping, there are several manufacturers catering to those with a hankering for some multi-use rain gear. Check out

MLD's Silnylon Poncho Pro

,

Jacks'R'Better

,

Integral Designs SilPoncho

, and

Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape.

 or the 

GoLite Poncho Tarp

.

Mud and Routes has a review of the latter

so you can see what you're getting into!

Other sites with alternative and additional info etc.

Brian Green has

a great intro post on ultralight shelters

.

Trailspace also offers

a good post that covers hammocks too

.

BPL: More than you'll ever need to know about condensation

.

BPL: More than you'll ever need to know about catenary curves

.

I fully expect that I have missed some gear considered essential by others, and I happily welcome recommendations and suggestions in the comments.

Manufacturers

Mountain Laurel Designs

Hyperlight Mountain Gear

Gossamer Gear

Katabatic Gear

Locus Gear

OookWorks

Six Moon Designs

GoLite

Black Diamond

Integral Designs

Nemo

Terra Nova

TarpTent

ZPacks 

Hennessey Hammocks

Warbonnet Outdoors

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break

Ultralight Makeover: Redux Pt. 2 - Downsize Your Pack

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 2 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 bloggers.

<< Part 1: Admit you have a problem

2. Downsize your pack.

Backpacker

 says: "For the lightest load, choose a pack that weighs less than two pounds and keep your total payload below 25 pounds (our pick: the

GoLite Jam

Pack, 1lb 15oz)." Alternatively, should you want the best of both worlds (a light pack, with big load-carrying ability), they recommend a

Granite Gear Blaze

, and weighing in at 2lbs, 15oz.

Backpacking North

 says: 

Backpacker

's optimum suggestion barely squeezes in at under two pounds. I think we can do better than that and still maintain a good level of comfort.

The thing to bear in mind when selecting an ultralight pack is that your pack weight is going to be so much lower – especially for the short weekend trip which we are focusing on – so the load-bearing requirements of your pack can be less. It is not absolutely necessary to have a pack frame to support your load, as this can be achieved with careful packing. Nor is a complex and heavy hip belt system with an integrated free-floating suspension system desirable. Once you eliminate these two traditional mainstays of the backpack, you can easily get the initial weight of your pack down to around 1lb or 500g.

Frames vs. frameless

As mentioned above, with an ultralight load you should be carrying far less weight, so the load-bearing demands put on your pack will be considerable lessened. The corollary of this is that with a lighter load you will be able to hike further and longer, so it's still important that you are able to carry your pack comfortably over longer periods and distances.

Traditionally, a frame helps to maintain pack shape and carrying position. But the addition of a frame – typically taking the form of metal stays – adds a lot of weight to a pack. Some UL packs offer the best of both worlds by providing removable stays, so if your load is bulky or heavier you can leave the stays in if you wish. But if your load is lighter and you employ a good packing strategy, you don't necessarily need a frame. Another alternative to the more standard metal stays is a plastic, removable framesheet. Lighter in weight, but still offering some structural support, it's a good option. But what we're really interested in is doing away with the frame altogether.

When you see a frameless backpack for the first time, it seems impossibly flimsy and shockingly light. Most schoolkid's backpacks are heavier. Can something this insubstantial really carry enough gear comfortably for a weekend trip? The secret is in the way you pack. Instead of a fitted frame, you simply use the items you take with you to create a frame or structure inside the pack. The easiest way to do this is with your sleeping mat. Simply roll the mat loosely to fill the pack and create a kind of burrito in which you'll stuff the rest of your gear. Alternatively or, as I generally do, fold your deflated air pad (I use a POE Ether Elite 6) to create a torso sized framesheet.

Then it's simply a matter of packing everything else in to create a nice, tight bundle that carries comfortably. We'll be looking a little more closely at that in part 10.

Hipbelts vs. weight concerns

It is always better to transfer as much of the weight of your pack to the hips, rather than to the shoulders. You'll know when you have a poorly fitted pack. At the end of a day's hiking, your shoulders will be killing you. This, I find, is as true for ultralight backpacking as it is for traditional heavyweight backpacking. The amount of pain is different, of course, but I've had aching shoulders with a lightweight pack.

Heavy backpacks often have elaborate hip belts, and they need to because the packs are designed for people carrying everything including the kitchen sink into the wilderness – with a 15kg pack you're going to want a thick hip belt. But with a total pack weight less than around 8kg, the hip belt can be a lot simpler, or in extreme super ultralight cases, it can be dispensed with altogether.

Personally, I like to have some form of decent hip belt to take most of the weight off of my shoulders. it can be as simple as a slip of unpadded Dyneema, but it needs to be able to distribute some of the load onto my pelvic area.

My Laufbursche huckePACK has a very nice hipbelt – just right, providing enough support to take the weight, while not adding much to the weight of the pack. My MLD Burn, on the other hand, while not that dissimilar, carries less well. But there is another reason for that...

Sizing and fitting

When packs become simpler, they generally lose a lot of flexibility when it comes to sizing adjustments. With a heavy pack you often can adjust the torso length, for example, to meet your specific anatomical peculiarities. Again, all those straps and attachment systems add to the weight of the pack. Most ultralight packs dispense with the fine-tuning and come in three sizes (small, medium, large) for different torso lengths. A few manufactures (notably Granite Gear and GoLite) offer variations of their packs designed for women, which is always a good thing. For a comfortable carry, it's vital to choose a pack that fits well – and not all packs will. It's possible you'll find what seems like the perfect lightweight pack, only to discover it simply doesn't feel comfortable when loaded. Should this happen, avoid the temptation of buying that otherwise perfect pack, for I guarantee it will transform your pleasant hike into an arduous slog.

Another feature common to heavy packs, but frequently (sadly) omitted from lightweight packs are load lifters. These shoulder-mounted straps pull the top of the pack in close to your body, and create a

much

 better carrying position. It's essential to have the weight hug your shoulders, rather than tugging away from them. Some hardcore ultralighters might argue that with an extremely light load, load lifters become irrelevant. I would argue that any load when carried for extremely long distances will be felt eventually, and a small sacrifice in weight for a pair of load lifters makes a huge difference to your carrying ability and stamina. We can go ultralight and still maintain comfort.

Bells and whistles

A heavy backpack is positively loaded with non-essential straps, pockets, dividers, pockets, load adjusters, pockets, lids, tie-off points, pockets, and additional pockets.

An ultralight backpack typically has one compartment, two or three mesh pockets on the outside, and some lightweight compression cords, and that's about it. Many packs forego a lid for a simple roll-top closure system which keeps rain or spindrift out. The large exterior mesh pockets are ideal for stuffing damp shelters in. A couple of side pockets keep essential items and water handy. A single compartment is really all you need, and cuts out a bunch of extra material and zippers.

Durability and materials

Ultralight packs today are made out of a variety of materials, with two perhaps proving the most popular: DyneemaX and Cuben Fiber. DyneemaX is a durable, strong, water resistant fabric, while Cuben Fiber is extremely lightweight but less durable. It's also very expensive, but, in white, looks very hip and cool. I tend to go for Dyneema for durability and price reasons. There are of course other materials in use, but these are by far the most visible at present.

Cutting corners

The gram counters out there will eagerly take a pair of scissors to a new pack and cut off extraneous straps and labels, shearing whole fractions of an ounce off the weight of the pack. This may seem utterly obsessive and crazy, but don't be surprised to catch yourself doing it. It's perfectly acceptable, and you will not be alone.

Which came first, the pack or the load?

It's a little odd that

Backpacker

 chose to begin it's guide to seeking the tao of ultralight with the cold turkey option of choosing a lighter pack. A ultralight pack is not much use if you don't have lightweight, compressible, compact gear to put inside it – they are simply too small to contain much traditionally sized and weighted gear. Unless you already have a nice, light, down bag and a tiny shelter, you'll fill your new pack with your heavier versions of those items, leaving no room for any other gear or food. Enjoy your trip!

However,

Backpacker

's pack selections are quite generous in the pack volume department, so it is feasible to get either a Jam or a Blaze and pack a lot of your existing gear in – it just won't be particularly light... yet.

I would say, unless you happen to have a lot of disposable income, most people making the transition to a lighter load would begin with the contents of the pack rather than the pack itself. A one-step-at-a-time approach is easier on the wallet and gives you the opportunity to test the waters before committing to a new obsession (and I promise you, it

will

 become an obsession).

There are so many niche (and increasingly mainstream) manufacturers making lightweight packs today, your options a many and varied. Rather than list every single product and overwhelm you with data, I'll focus first on my "transition to ultralight" experience, then look at what other bloggers are currently favoring.

Backpacking North's Backpacks

My first foray into the ultralight bewilderness also began with some advice from

Backpacker

. I wanted to get a lighter pack, but at the time wasn't really aware of the ultralight community and the underlying philosophies and principles. I eventually opted for a

Granite Gear Vapor Trail

 (now re-named the

Crown V.C.

 (or V.C. Ki for women), a pack beloved of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (or so I'm led to believe), and made by a company in my temporary new home of Minnesota. The website says it all really: "So you're ready to take the next step. You've got your pack weight doen to 30 pounds [13.6kg] or less." By no means truly ultralight, then, the pack's weight of 1kg / 2lb 5oz was still a significant improvement on my old Halti traditional pack (mine, to be precise, weighs 1104g). It has an exchangeable hip belt which, I must admit, is very comfortable. It is quoted at 59l / 3600c.in, but it has a

huge

 roll-top collar – and I mean ridiculously huge – so you could carry a

lot

 more than that if you were so inclined.

The author sports a fetching Vapor Trail.

The design is quite unusual – the side pockets are a stretchy lycra-like material, and instead of a front pocket, there is a system of straps which can be used to attach a sleeping pad, tent, or other long object, but isn't too practical for a tarp or other lightweight shelter. The lower section, where a sleeping bag might be placed inside, bulges out, creating a slight teardrop shape. While I still have the Vapor Trail in the gear closet, it has been relegated to winter use at the moment. My current three-season gear simply doesn't fill it up enough. For an extended hike it might prove useful though.

As I started to get more and more lightweight gear, the capacity of the Vapor Trail was just way too much. I started looking for a

really

 small pack, and settled on a

Mountain Laurel Designs Burn

. This is a tiny pack – tall and thin, frameless, with tiny straps, a thin hip belt (more a hip strap), a fixed size, and weighing a delightful 414g / 14.6oz. Now we're talking! Excited, 

I wrote a little bit about it here.

Mountain Laurel Designs Burn

This was seriously lightweight in comparison to the "ultralight" Vapor Trail. For a weekend trip with a full complement of light gear, it's a great pack. However, I found that the long torso size was still a little short for me, and the hip belt sat too high on my waist. As I've already said, my load in this pack is very light, so the hip belt isn't so essential. However, combine that with the fact that there are also no load lifters, and I can tell you that after three days I noticed I was carrying it mainly on my shoulders.

When I purchased the Burn, what I really wanted was a new pack that wasn't even on the market yet – the (almost literally) legendary 

Laufbursche huckePACK

. I finally managed to get hold of one in 2010.

Laufbursche huckePACK inaction

Like the Burn, it's made of DyneemaX (although Cuben and Silnylon versions are available), is frameless, has mesh pockets, and a thin hip belt (which can be strapped out of the way, should you wish). However, because the belt sits on my hips where it should, and the shoulder straps are ergonomically shaped, it is an extremely comfortable carry. What's more, heaven be praised, it has load lifters! Simple ones, for sure, but they do the job splendidly. The ample mesh pockets fit my shelter (and even a snow claw for winter). Going against the tide of UL fashion, it has a pack lid (with a zippered pocket – how quaint!) which is again quite simple but helps in creating a good pack structure.

It weighs 534g / 19oz with the hip belt pockets I ordered, so more than the Burn, but it is larger and, in my opinion, superior.

Recently, however, I've switched to a

Gossamer Gear Mariposa

for anything longer than a night or two. Gossamer Gear redesigned the Mariposa in 2012 (you can

read my initial thoughts about it here

) and I think it's fair to say that some inspiration was probably taken from Laufbursche.

There are some neat additions: a more voluminous size (4244ci/47+22l), a very large mesh pocket (larger than the huckePACK), and a very large full-length pocket along one side, and two on the other (and the water bottle pocket retains bottles better) It comes with a sit pad, fitted hip-belt pockets (although they are a tad small), and a lid pocket (albeit with a poorly positioned (in my opinion) zip. Most importantly, though, is has in internal (but removable) aluminium stay (96g), which makes carrying heavier loads a little more comfortable.

My large one weighs 28.50 oz. (808 g), which is very respectable. It has become my go-to pack.

You can get one direct from

Gossamer Gear

.

What others say...

Ultralight packs are a dime a dozen these days. Well, maybe not a dime – the costs of small cottage manufacturers make their unique offerings a little on the expensive side, but I'm a big fan of supporting small independent businesses. Here are a few packs that popular with other bloggers, but I welcome and hope for recommendations highlighting other packs worthy of consideration in the comments.

Gossamer Gear Mariposa

Well, what do you know! I'm not the only one showing the love for the new Mariposa. Other advocates include

Jolly Green Giant

,

Robin at Blogpackinglight

,

Chris Townsend

, and 

Phil Werner

(natch, he runs the Trail Ambassador programme).

Gossamer Gear Gorilla

Newly redesigned to follow the Mariposa's swish curves, it's a very decent 26 oz / 737g considering it has foam shoulder straps, a removable foam hip belt, a removable aluminium curved stay, and a sit pad which doubles as a padding for your back. I've never seen one, but if I was looking to buy my first ultralight backpack today, this would be high on my list. No load lifters as far as I can see. A pity, but for lighter loads you can manage.  The previous version made

Joe's Gear of the Year

, and

Martin Rye

has owned and liked both versions, calling them "superb" and "top kit". High praise indeed, and there is no reason to expect anything less.

Laufbursche huckePACK / huckePACKchen

The original huckePACK is a firm favourite among the cognoscenti. Prized and coveted alike, you can read reviews at

Lighthiker

,

right here

, and, with a membership, at

Backpacking Light

.

Laufbursche also offers a smaller pack – the huckePACKchen in cuben fiber, which cuts back even more on the ounces (and capacity). Take a look at 

hrxxlight's excellent review

. The beef? It comes in at a measly 210g, or 7oz, for €150. Take that, GoLite.

Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet / Exodus

MLD make great gear – though you'll have to wait for it to be made. The

Prophet

and

Exodus

have a good reputation and are larger than the Burn or their even more minuscule 

Newt

packs (forthcoming). Check out

Jason Klaas's review of the Exodus

, and,

Martin Rye's review of the Prophet

.

Hyperlight Mountain Gear Porter

After the Mariposa, the Porter is probably the current alternative favourite among discerning backpackers with cash to blow. It uses a hybrid cuben fiber laminate material that is supposed to be 100% waterproof (it isn't, but it is pretty damn good) making it the perfect choice for packrafting (especially the larger volume sizes). The 55l of the 3400 size weigh in at  33 oz. (936 g) and it has been getting some excellent reviews; seek out the combined wisdom of

hrxxlite

,

Summit & Valley

, and

Ryan Jordan

(M). My opinion: it's a great pack, with a lot of flexibility (although at additional cost that soon mounts up). The hipbelt could use some work, and the seams are the weak points.

Other perennial favorites

ULA Ohm

Six Moon Designs Starlight

Z-Packs Blast

Links

Probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of the

ultralight backpack state of the market

can be found at

Backpacking Light

(membership required). The

Backpacking Light forums

are also an excellent source of reader reviews (free to all).

Want to see learn to pack a frameless pack?

Hendrik has you covered.

Manufacturers

Mountain Laurel Designs

Laufbursche

Granite Gear

GoLite

Gossamer Gear

Six Moon Designs

Z-Packs

Hyperlight Mountain Gear

Osprey

REI

 - The

Flash

is a reasonably good offering made by REI themselves.

Check out the rest of Ultralight Makeover Redux:

Part 1: Admit you have a problem

Part 2: Downsize your pack

Part 3: Ditch your dome

Part 4: Change your bedding

Part 5: Start cooking light

Part 6: Pay attention to the menu

Part 7: Carry less water

Part 8: Dress down

Part 9: Stay fresh with less

Part 10: Pack knowledge

Part 11: Go smart-tech

Part 12: Give your feet a break