Lightweight Backpacking 101
A 9-Part Series Outlining the Basic Concepts of Lightweight Backpacking
Series Managing Editor
George Cole, Alan Dixon, Rick Dreher, Ryan Jordan David Schultz, M. Lee Van Horn
First Edition: August 2001
Length (Approximate): 20,000+ Words
Copright (C) 2001 Beartooth Mountain Press, LLC
by Ryan Jordan
Backpacking Light (www.BackpackingLight.COM) is pleased to introduce the first edition of “Lightweight Backpacking 101.”
Consider this nine-part series to be your rite of passage as a new lightweight backpacker, as we introduce you to the fundamental concepts that provide the foundation of a lightweight philosophy. For the more advanced lightweight hiker, “LB101” provides a great refresher course that will continue to solidify core concepts and remind you of some forgotten tidbits.
The series will be released in parts throughout the month of August, 2001. While each article stands on its own and can be read independent of the others in the series, the series order has been designed to serve as a logical outline for learning the basic techniques of lightweight backpacking.
We hope that you enjoy the series and find it to be informative, challenging, and insightful.
|Table of Contents|
Basic Concepts, by Alan Dixon
Equipment Primer, by Alan Dixon
Clothing, by Ryan Jordan
Cooking Equipment, by M. Lee Van Horn
Trail Food, by Dave Schultz
Water Treatment, by George Cole
Miscellaneous Essentials, by Rick Dreher
Nonessentials, by Rick Dreher
Ultra-Light, Ultra-Cheap, by Dave Schultz
|Part 1: Basic Concepts|
An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of Lightweight Backpacking
By Alan Dixon
You’re grinding your way up a pass. It’s near 10,000 feet. The air is thin, and you have to stop every few hundred feet to catch your breath. You put your thumbs under your straps to keep them from digging into your sore shoulders. You hitch up the hip belt that keeps sliding down. Painful bruises are forming on your hip bones. You can feel a blister starting on your right heel. Your legs are like rubber. The summit seems hours away. If it weren’t for this damn heavy pack life would be a lot easier right now.
Then along comes another backpacker. He has a tiny pack on his back and a smile on his face. He’s in running shoes and must be moving at four times your speed. If it weren’t for the ground pad rolled up on the top of his pack you’d think he was a day hiker. He remarks that it’s a beautiful day and what nice views there are up this high and then he’s off. A few minutes later he’s out of sight.
You just saw a lightweight backpacker.
You think two things. First-that the guy is in great shape. And second, that he must be crazy to be hiking with that tiny pack. There is no way he can be safe or comfortable with such a small amount of equipment. You checked your list and you know that you couldn’t go safely without any less equipment or food.
Or could you?
Maybe that lightweight backpacker wasn’t in better shape than you. Maybe his pack just weighed half of yours. Maybe he had enough stuff to be nearly as safe–and as comfortable–as you. And maybe…you could be the one with a spring in your step and a smile on your face.
Lightweight Backpacking Defined
In essence, lightweight backpacking involves using the lightest gear to meet the needs of an overnight (or longer) wilderness walk. Many “ultralight” backpackers have a base pack weight (weight of gear not including clothing worn, items carried, food, fuel, and water) of less than 12 pounds. For others that are transitioning to this ultralight range, a base pack weight of 12-20 pounds is considered lightweight.
This is in stark contrast to most U.S. backpackers, which have base pack weights as high as 30, 40, or even 50 pounds. In a recent poll of the BackpackingLight E-Group (an online discussion group devoted to lightweight backpacking), the majority of poll respondents had packs in the transition weight range of 12-20 pounds. Realize that these numbers are arbitrary–each person eventually finds a balance between comfort and minimalism, and while a 12 pound pack might be considered “ultralight” for one person, it may be considered “heavy” by another. Hopefully, after reading Lightweight Backpacking 101, you’ll have enough information to find your ideal setup.
The amount and type of gear you pack will change with each trip. The 12 pound ultralight base pack weight is possible if nighttime temperatures are not too much below freezing, trail and cross country routes do not exceed class III, and you are camping below tree line. Trips with technical climbs, very cold weather, deep snow, and strong winds require more gear for both comfort and safety. A pack for a winter climbing trip may have a base weight of 25 pounds, but the principal of using the lightest gear to meet the needs of the trip remains. That pack would be much lighter than most winter climbing packs, and, depending upon the scope of the trip, might be considered “ultralight.”
Why Hike Light?
Or, why suffer if you don’t have to?
The average backpacker carries 40 to 50 pounds for a week-long backpacking trip (e.g., 30 pounds of pack and equipment, plus two pounds of food a day).
My son, Colin, may be laughing in the photo above, but his 55-pound pack was no joking matter after 8 days on the trail.
A pack this heavy causes plenty of problems:
- Slow, tedious hiking;
- Exhaustion, irritability, and low esprit de corps on the trail;
- Increased chance of injury–sore back, sprained ankles, blown knees, sore muscles, bruised and blistered feet, sore hips and shoulders, etc.;
- Increased risk of poor foot placement and falls;
- The need for heavy boots (since weak ankles cannot effectively provide the necessary lateral support for heavy loads);
- Tired, cross people who make bad decisions, sometimes with serious consequences;
- Long hiking times that mean less time for the fun stuff–relaxing in camp, fishing, staring at clouds, skinny dipping, side trips…;
- Exhaustion upon arrival at camp for the night.
How about an 18-pound pack for a weekend trip? A 25-pound pack for a one week trip? At these pack weights, backpacking feels more like day hiking. It’s a freeing experience–trail miles melt away, and you can better appreciate the beauty of the hike. You can cover more miles and see more places or get into camp early, with plenty of time and energy to do almost anything.
Lightweight backpackers can easily achieve a base pack weight of around 12 pounds (see Part 2: Equipment Primer for more details.) Adding around 1.75 pounds of food per day and some fuel, you will be carrying 25 pounds for a seven-day trip and 18 for a weekend. (Refer to Part 5: Trail Food, for more information about food for lightweight hiking.)
Who Can Practice Lightweight Backpacking?
Lightweight backpacking is for everyone.
If you have ever creaked and groaned up a mountain, you know the misery of hiking with an overloaded pack. Heavy packs turn many people away from backpacking. For some, going lightweight may make the difference between backpacking or not, especially people hiking with children, older people, those with joint or other physical problems, and people not as fit and/or trim as they wish.
An example: last year I guided a friend on a trip to the Sierras, who was neither in great shape nor svelte. But with a 13-pound pack, she was able to make it off-trail over a 12,000 foot pass to a beautiful and remote alpine lake. She would never have been able to do this with a conventional pack and we would not have had the pleasure of sharing each other’s company in such a beautiful and remote location.
What are the Tradeoffs?
A lightweight backpacker should carry the same safety gear and essentials that any hiker would take–clothing, sleeping bag, shelter, first aid kit, water treatment supplies, etc. Inexperience and poor judgment cause the most problems when backpacking–it’s simply unfair to blame your equipment in most cases. Solid backpacking technique, familiarity with your equipment, sound safety practices, and, above all, good judgment, count more for your well being on the trail than the weight of equipment you bring.
While wise lightweight backpackers do not forgo safety, there are trade-offs. Some light equipment has performance limitations or is less durable than heavier equipment. However, most light equipment is every bit as comfortable and durable as heavier equipment. Materials such as carbon fiber, titanium, Spectra® fabric and light emitting diodes (LEDs) can even provide added durability at less weight than conventional materials. With proper care and use, lightweight equipment can perform well while surviving thousands of trail miles.
Many backpackers blindly trust advertisements in mainstream media and advice given by young salesmen in retail outdoor stores. For financial reasons, most outfitters sell equipment that emphasizes durability at any price (in order to avoid product returns) while claiming to supply “all the comforts of home on the trail” to lure unsuspecting hikers into a false sense of comfort and security.
Lightweight backpackers include weight as a fundamental factor in their equipment decisions. Some luxuries, such as baking ovens and double-walled tents, may be abandoned while others, such as an inflatable mattress that doubles as pack support in lieu of a frame, may be used. These decisions are personal. As with all choices, being informed and experimenting with different alternatives leads to better equipment decisions. I challenge you to put away your old preconceptions (misconceptions?) about backpacking and experiment with the alternatives.
How Much Does it Cost?
The short answer is somewhere between $300 and $1,000. The equipment included in my own sub-9-pound summer ultralight kit would cost around $700. In Part 9: Ultra Light-Ultra Cheap, we close Lightweight Backpacking 101 with a discussion on outfitting yourself for as little as $300. Some of your current clothes and/or backpacking equipment may do just fine for lightweight backpacking (e.g., your present pair of trail running shoes). Also, many discount stores like K-Mart and Target have a surprising amount of inexpensive equipment that is suitable for the beginning lightweight backpacker. If you watch for closeouts from conventional outdoor retailers (e.g. REI, Campmor, EMS, etc.) and/or super deals from discount retailers like Sierra Trading Post or REI-Outlet.COM, you can save 60 to 70% on some of your equipment purchases.
Another recent poll of BackpackingLight E-Group members revealed that the average lightweight backpacker has spent somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000 dollars on equipment. However, I’m not sure that the members of this list are a representative cross-section of Lightweight Backpacking America, simply because these people tend to be “gear heads,” taking this activity seriously enough to warrant a fascinating psychological study into the power of choice and the human soul. In other words, this is a serious activity for them, and this total reveals expenditures for equipment purchased over a long period of time. It is highly likely that these dollar figures represent include replicate items as “old” light gear was replaced with “newer” light gear.
In summary: If you are just starting out and own little equipment, for $500 to $1,000 you can put together a very high quality kit of lightweight equipment. But be forewarned–this is an addictive pursuit! Many who begin spending a little find themselves spending a lot, so keep an eye on credit card balances and don’t lose those $3 titanium tent pegs!
How do I Start?
First and foremost, consider your pack, shelter, sleep system (e.g., sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and ground cloth), and clothing. You might be able to lose as much as 15 or 20 pounds by replacing these items alone.
Here a few other things you might try:
- Find out the horrible truth! How much does your pack–and it’s individual items–really weight? Gather every piece of gear you own and weigh it on a scale with an accuracy of at least one ounce. If you don’t have a scale, you can purchase a decent digital scale at office supply houses for less than $30, or you can just pack up and go to the post office for an afternoon that will surely attract some attention from the USPS’ “other” customers.
- Go to a reliable search engine like Google and type “lightweight backpacking” in the search box. Review the first 50 or 100 sites in the results, many of which are personal sites with equipment lists posted online. Reviewing these lists will give you ideas for reducing pack weight and a representative overview of equipment available on the market.
- Use your computer to your advantage. Create a spreadsheet listing your equipment items in one column and their weights in another. This can be an indispensable analysis tool for planning a trip or even developing an overall “buying” strategy when you’ve decided to make the move from heavy to light.
- Consider items that you can leave at home. Anything you don’t bring with you is free weight reduction! Think hard about this one and ask yourself honestly, “Do I really need this item?”
- Post your current or proposed equipment list, with weights, on the Backpacking Light E-mail Group. You’ll get great advice from experienced lightweight backpackers that are just as addicted to staring at their others’ gear lists as they are to staring at their own. Remember, many of these folks have been right where you are now and are eager to help.
- Try to analyze how to spend your money to get the most “bang for the buck” (e.g., find an item’s price and divide that by the weight it will save you over your old equipment to get a “cost per oz in weight reduction” as a measure of buying power). Then replace the items that give you the most weight loss for the fewest dollars.
- Finally, don’t try to do this all at once! Many items regularly go on sale or are closed out, and you’ll certainly want to consider a manufacturer’s new offerings, usually introduced in the winter and spring. Patience–particularly in the buying department–can be a real virtue.
My Personal Thoughts on Lightweight Backpacking
I go to the mountains to enjoy natural beauty and solitude. I want to get away from houses, roads, and city life. I find that material “stuff” gets in the way of my mountain experience. For obvious reasons, a lightweight philosophy is a perfect fit for me.
- When I’m in the mountains, I like to cover a lot of ground. I want to see as much as I can in the limited time I have.
- I hate being a pack mule. I like the freedom of a light pack. It allows me to go farther and through more rugged terrain–without suffering!
- I sometimes hike with people that are not fit or fast hikers. A light kit allows me to carry a little extra weight for them, substantially reducing their pack weight and increasing the enjoyment of our group.
- I don’t need fancy food or hot meals when I hike solo. (I do carry a stove and cook meals when I hike with others.)
- I don’t mind if the ground is bit hard.
- I don’t want a big fancy tent that reminds me of the rooms I left behind.
- Books? I never get bored. There’s always too much to see and something interesting to check out in the next canyon, Or a nice lake or stream from which to angle some trout. And I need time to think in the quiet and solitude of the mountains, which is something I get precious little of in my hectic, daily life.
That’s my personal take. Many lightweight backpackers cook fine cuisine, sleep on soft ground pads in the shelter of a tent, and even bring a book or two. Some even bring a candle lantern and a Bible along. Lightweight backpacking techniques offer you the flexibility to make these choices.
Again, there are no hard and fast rules that dictate right and wrong in a lightweight philosophy.
Each person finds their ideal pack weight and comfort level.
Finding yours will be half the fun.
Happy trails to you and your lighter pack.
|Part 2: Equipment Primer|
An Overview of Lightweight Backpacking Gear
by Alan Dixon
In Part 1: Basic Concepts, you learned a general overview of lightweight hiking. Hopefully, you have decided to begin transitioning to a lightweight approach. Part 2 will focus on how to put together a kit of lightweight backpacking equipment. At the end of Part 2, you should have enough information to begin selecting lightweight backpacking equipment that will complement your hiking style.
For now, we’ll focus on equipment selections for a kit that will require a total investment of $600 to $1,000. If this is too much money, there’s no need to worry. Part 9: Ultra Light – Ultra Cheap will provide insight into choosing equipment that won’t require a second job, let alone a second mortgage.
By following the guidelines outlined herein, you can easily achieve a base pack weight of less than 12 pounds.
To simplify this discussion, the information presented in this article is focused on a lightweight backpacking gear kit suitable for:
- Three-season (April to October) backpacking across most of the lower 48 states (i.e., two-season (June to August) backpacking in the western U.S. mountains like the Cascades, Sierras, or Rockies);
- Nighttime temperatures that only infrequently fall to below freezing;
- Trail hiking and cross country routes not to exceed class II scrambling.
Comparing Ultralight, Light, and Traditional Backpacking Equipment
To start off, review three arbitrary equipment kits: ultralight, light, and traditional (Table 1), primarily to understand how individual equipment weights add up to the total kit weight.
The first thing you should notice is that a lot of seemingly small weight reductions can add up to a whopping amount. For a 7-day trip this can be the difference between a pack that weighs 22 pounds and a pack that weighs 55 pounds (as suggested in Table 1).
Building a Lightweight Kit of Backpacking Equipment
Select the Lightest Equipment. The lightweight backpacker typically takes a similar number of items as the traditional backpacker, just lighter versions of those items. For example, you won’t find things like a 7-pound tent, a 2-pound Goretex jacket, or a 3½ -pound sleeping bag in the pack of a lightweight backpacker venturing out for a summer walk in the mountains. Much of the time, this lighter equipment is every bit as functional–if not more so–than heavier equipment. Sometimes the lighter equipment has some performance limitations or may be less durable than heavier equipment. In this case, the reduction in weight may very well exceed these limitations, although perception of such limitations tends to be highly subjective and depends on the individual. With care and proper use, durability is not often a problem under most trail conditions, and lightweight equipment can perform to a high performance standard for years.
An example: A tarp made with 1.4 oz/yd2 silicone-coated nylon (“silnylon”) does not provide the ease of setup and “bombproof” rain and wind protection of a free standing tent. But in summertime in the Sierras where the normal weather pattern calls for little more than afternoon thunderstorms (if any at all), do you really need the 5 or 6 or 7 pound tent? With proper care and pitching, a 16 oz silnylon tarp will keep you dry and sufficiently sheltered from the wind. Further, the increased airflow through a tarp results in less claustrophobia and condensation than is found in most tents. Finally, with a light pack you can hike at a more consistent rate that could put you in camp with the tarp set up before the arrival of both the afternoon thunderstorms and the traditional backpackers toting their heavy loads. Even if tarp camping isn’t your cup of tea, there are even some two person ultralight tents manufactured with silnylon for around two pounds.
Select Your Pack, Shelter, Sleeping Bag, and Clothing Appropriate to the Season. You stand to lose the most weight on these items (e.g., as much as 17 pounds in the comparison lists shown in Table 1). The traditional backpacker carries three-season equipment for summer backpacking, i.e., a heavy internal frame pack designed to carry 50+ pound loads, a double-walled three-season tent, a +15 synthetic bag, and clothing more appropriate for suffering through a Green Bay Packers home game than for walking the woods in the heat of summer.
A lightweight backpacker will carry equipment appropriate to the season. For example, for summer backpacking, a frameless backpack designed for a 25 pound load, a one-pound tarp or two-pound tent, a high-fill down bag with a 30°F temperature rating, and clothing suitable for temperatures down to freezing or so. The lightweight backpacker also selects the lightest equipment suitable for the conditions to round out the rest of his kit. The difference in base pack weights between these two approaches, as shown in Table 1, is typically in the range of 15 to 20 pounds.
Take Only What You Need. A lightweight backpacker takes little or no duplicate or “backup” equipment. As an example, your clothing, sleep system, and shelter, when used together, should keep you just warm and safe enough during the lowest anticipated temperatures and worst anticipated weather.
A lightweight backpacker does not take more of anything than needed for a single trip. For example, do you really need an 8 ounce tube of sunscreen or toothpaste for a weekend of wilderness travel? This axiom holds true for bug repellent, soap, toilet paper, fuel, and even food. All these items can add up to a lot of extra weight without careful planning and forethought.
Deliberate food planning can reduce the total weight of food you carry. One guideline followed by many lightweight backpackers when designing a backcountry diet is 2,000 calories per pound of food, resulting in about 1.5 pounds of food per day to meet the caloric requirements of the average backpacker (who consumes about 3,000 calories per day). Adhering to this guideline, a traditional backpacker can reduce food weight by five or more pounds.
If maximizing calories per pound is your overall goal, then seek out a balanced diet with a significant quantity of foods that are high in fat–fat contains an astonishing 9 calories per gram, in contrast to carbohydrates or protein, which contain only 4 calories per gram. In addition, if you are using a bear canister for food storage, high calorie food is more compact and you’ll be able to pack the canister with greater ease.
Considerations for Equipment Selection
The Big Three – Pack, Shelter, and Sleep System – Save 10 to 12 Pounds
Packs. With a light load, you won’t need a heavy pack with a stout internal (or external) frame. Most light frameless packs (or internal frame packs with the frame structure removed) will easily carry up to 25 pounds in comfort. For a frameless pack, your ground pad and the contents of the pack will provide the “structure” to help transfer the load to your hip belt. Some backpackers find comfort even in packs without a hip belt–I have no problem with a frameless, hip belt-less rucksack for most of my backpacking. With few exceptions, such “light” packs are not as durable as their heavier Cordura or ballistic nylon counterparts, and shouldn’t be indiscriminately dragged across a granite talus slope. With proper care and a little common sense, this is not likely to be a problem.
Here are a few lightweight pack options. All are frameless rucksacks. The Breeze does not have a hipbelt. The G4 is made from a very light nylon that requires some care in handling. The One Pound Pack is made from a durable mesh, resulting in quick drying of wet contents and more air flow to your back. The AT pack is made with a very durable material and is the largest of the four listed.
- GoLite Breeze (12 oz)
- GVPGear G4 (12 oz)
- LWGear One Pound Pack (13 oz)
- Wild Things AT (41 oz)
Sleeping Bags. Not surprisingly, sleeping bags are the cash cow of lightweight backpacking. No piece of equipment is capable of instilling more feeling of contentment after a hard day on the trail than a quality, high-lofting (and expensive) down bag. Even lightweight backpackers on a budget eventually break down and succumb to the luxury of a 750+ fill power down bag with an ultralight shell fabric. Down is unmatched by any synthetic for its warmth to weight ratio and compressibility. Synthetic bags, although they do insulate better when wet, tend to be significantly heavier than down (despite manufacturer claims) while consuming additional volume inside the pack. The new microfiber shell fabrics and more resilient durable water-resistant (DWR) finishes used in down bags protect down insulation from external moisture much better than the traditional nylon taffetas of long ago. With a reasonable amount of care, most backpackers can keep a down bag dry, primarily by (1) storing it in a waterproof stuff sack while hiking, and (2) selecting campsites that won’t turn into rivers or lakes in a downpour.
Most backpackers use sleeping bags that are grossly overrated for the anticipated temperatures. However, sleeping bag temperature ratings are only an estimate of a bag’s performance and should not be taken as consumer gospel. Temperature ratings between manufacturers WILL vary for bags that have equal performance characteristics. Your metabolism, state of exhaustion, diet, hydration, and weather can all affect how warm you will sleep. For the same bag and climatic conditions, one person may sleep toasty warm while another may lie awake and chilled all night. Testing out a bag in your backyard or on an overnight trip before taking it out on longer trips into more remote areas is a great way to realize that you can probably get by with a bag that is lighter than you think.
Here are a few sleeping bag options. The UltraLite is considered by many to be the creme de la creme of traditional mummy-style sleeping bags and is probably rated conservatively by 5°F. The UltraLite has a contoured hood, full-length zipper, 0.85 oz/yd2 fabric shell, and a trim cut. The Hydrogen has a half-length zipper, hood, a slightly wider cut than the UltraLite, and is probably liberally rated by +5°F. The Alpinist is a no-frills bag featuring 800-fill down, no zipper, a mummy cut, and a hood. The Elite Top Bag, as the name implies, includes insulation only on the top (quirky but innovative), hence its light weight. The Minimus has the narrowest cut of the bunch in a zipperless mummy bag with 800-fill down.
- Western Mountaineering UltraLite (28 oz) +25°F
- Marmot Hydrogen (23 oz) +30°F
- Nunatak Alpinist (23 oz) +20°F
- RAB Carrington Elite Top Bag (17 oz) +32°F
- PHD Minimus (17 oz) +41°F
For synthetic bags, check out the Polarguard 3D-insulated Fur and Fuzz sleep systems from GoLite and PrimaLoft-insulated bags from Integral Designs and Nunatak.
For the do-it-yourself crowd, you can make a light quilt with 1.1 oz/yd2 nylon as the shell and lining material and PrimaLoft for less than $75 of material investment. Instructions are available in Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking or by searching Google for “homemade sleeping quilt.”
Sleeping Pads. Even the lightest hybrid air-open cell foam inflatable mattresses, such as Cascade Design’s ThermaRest® UltraLite, weigh about a pound; others tend to fall in the 1-2 pound range (some weigh even more) . On the other hand, a closed cell foam pad can weigh as little as four ounces, and will seldom exceed 12 ounces for a typical ¾-length (54″) pad. The biggest advantages to closed cell foam over inflatables are (1) they do not fail you in the case of puncture, and (2) they offer a greater warmth-to-weight ratio. Their primary disadvantage is their lack of comfort on hard ground. However, the lightweight backpacker that can effectively seek out campsites on forest duff and other soft substrates can save a significant amount of weight-without sacrificing comfort-in the sleeping pad department.
The cheapest closed cell foam sleeping pad on the market is probably the old standard 3/8″ “Blue” foam pad, available for about ten bucks from Wal-Mart. Cut to a size of 20″ x 48″, you can get the weight down to an amazing 5 oz. For more comfort and durability, consider Cascade Designs’ Ridge Rest, weighing about 9 oz in its standard size (20″ x 54″). Finally, for a lightweight backpacking “cult” favorite, try High Country Outdoor Products’ Mount Washington Pad. At 7 oz, the MW’s eggshell pattern provides surprising comfort, albeit in a bulky configuration.
Ground Sheets. One of the most popular-and heaviest-ground sheets carried by traditional backpackers is the 12 oz Space® “All-Weather Blanket.” While this product provides great durability for several seasons, in addition to possible dual use in an emergency, all that a ground sheet really needs to do is keep dirt and moisture off of your sleeping bag and pad. Some lightweight backpackers even use their poncho for a groundsheet.
Some other ground sheet options include the 6.5 oz Campmor Thermolite Emergency Survival Blanket (item no. 89034), or the fragile but very light mylar Space® Emergency Blanket (3.0 oz). In addition, scrap pieces of Tyvek® Housewrap (available as a scrap piece from a building contractor) , 1.4 oz/yd2 silicone-coated nylon (available from outdoor fabric suppliers), or 1-2 mil “painter’s plastic” drop cloth material (available from hardware stores), cut to size, can provide a great alternative to commercially-available ground sheets at weights between 3 and 6 oz. Tyvek® will be the most durable, “silnylon” will be the lightest and most waterproof, and painter’s plastic will be the most widely available.
Tarps, Tents, and other Shelters. In general, tarps are the lightest and least expensive type of shelter. They provide sufficient wind and rain protection in most summer conditions. For additional protection, you might consider a floorless tent. They are heavier and more expensive than tarps but provide more protection from wind and hard, driving rain. Neither type of shelter provides bug protection, although the addition of a simple noseeum mesh headnet or free standing “bug shelter” can make tarp life tolerable in the peak of biting insect seasons.
A special category of shelters are backpacking hammocks, which usually provide a full mesh enclosure and an overhead, integrated tarp for rain protection. Finally, there are light, single walled tents, usually made out of silicone-coated nylon, and range in price from moderately expensive ($300+) to very expensive ($500-800+). They provide the most protection from wind, rain and bugs, but sacrifice air flow and may cause problems with condensation. Two person single-walled tents usually range from 3 to 5 pounds, while solo single-walled tents typically weigh 2-4 pounds.
Suppliers of Silicone-Coated Nylon Tarps
- Integral Designs
Other Lightweight Backpacking Shelters (Silicone-Coated Nylon)
- Integral Designs Silshelter (12 oz). Floorless “tent” can also be pitched as a tarp. Requires a single (trekking) pole for setup.
- Henry Shire’s Tarptent (18 oz). Solo tarp with mosquito netting walls and doors for added bug protection. Available from Moonbow Gear.
- LW Gear One Pound Tent – (14 oz). Tarp with end doors for a full enclosure if needed.
- Hennessy Hammocks (20 oz and up). Backpacking hammocks with full mesh enclosures and rain flys.
- Wanderlust Outdoor Gear Nomad Tents (28 oz and up). Single wall tents using trekking poles for support and structure.
- Stephenson’s Warmlite Tents (36 oz and up). Everest-worthy 2-, 3-, and 5-man tents in both single and double-wall configurations.
Footwear. Many lightweight hikers prefer hiking in trail running shoes. A cult favorite is New Balance’s 800 series trail runners (with the 804 representing the new model for 2001). Also consider the Montrail Vitesse or Salomon Raid series, designed primarily for mountain running and adventure racing. As with any footwear, make sure that fit remains your first priority in selecting a shoe. Secondary but very important considerations include breathability (don’t select a waterproof-breathable model for summer hiking), shoe weight, cushioning, and stability on uneven surfaces.
Other Equipment. This article cannot hope to provide an overview of all lightweight backpacking equipment (e.g., clothing, water treatment, cooking gear, food, other essentials, and “nonessentials”). Be sure to read Lightweight Backpacking 101 to help you put together the rest of your lightweight kit.
A Final Word: Be Smart, Stay Safe
Please be very careful when you start lightweight backpacking.
The lightweight approach to equipment selection described herein is intended for a limited scope of environmental conditions and should not necessarily be relied upon in extremes of temperature or weather. Even during the heat of summer, the U.S. western mountain ranges can offer snow and sub-freezing temperatures. You should be confident that you can use your equipment to deal with these conditions.
You should not take a lightweight kit into high-mountain areas like the Rockies, Cascades, or Sierras without the knowledge and experience to use it. Not having the appropriate equipment, or unfamiliarity with lightweight backpacking techniques, could result in serious discomfort, injury, or death.
As with any serious study, take your time learning and gaining experience: lighten your kit a bit at a time with judicious testing on short outings and in your backyard. Take backup equipment until you have confidence that your ultralight equipment will keep you warm and safe.
|Part 3: Clothing|
by Ryan Jordan
On one September day in the Teton Range, I woke up at dawn and began hiking on a calm but bitter cold 25-degree morning. By 11:00 AM, the temperature had risen to the high 70s on the 10,000-foot ridges. At 2:30 PM, we were experiencing 40 MPH winds that signaled an impending storm. Within a period of two hours, temperatures dropped 35 degrees and freezing rain and hail were coming down by 5:00 PM. We awoke the next morning to a 6-inch blanket of fresh snow, clear skies, and temperatures in the teens. We would see weather in the 80s before the week was over.
Coping with extremes in weather is one of the most challenging applications of lightweight backpacking. Here is a list of environmental circumstances that your clothing must be able to handle:
- Sun. Sunscreen is out, clothing is in. Select clothing that can protect you from the harmful UV light in the sun’s rays. Your body will thank you later and you’ll avoid the mess and odor associated with sunscreen.
- Heat. Your clothing system, and especially, your hiking clothing, must be able to keep you cool during the heat of the day. Clothing made with thin, highly breathable, loose-fitting fabrics are ideal.
- Precipitation. Why stay home because of a little (or a lot, for that matter) rain? Being in the wilderness in the peak of a wicked storm can be a memorable experience. Make the memories satisfying ones by being prepared with waterproof raingear.
- Cold. Whether your choice is fleece, down, Primaloft, or some other insulating material, include some cold weather protection in your ensemble. Cold weather, in combination with being wet, is a sure recipe for hypothermia.
- Insects. You can certainly bathe in DEET while you’re in the backcountry, but I’d recommend that if you’re visiting an area where the mosquitoes and blackflies rule the roost, consider long pants and long sleeved shirts for your primary bug protection. You can always fill in the gaps with a dab of insect repellent here and there.
OK, so where do we start? With a gear list of course!
We pulled a recommended three-season clothing list from Backpacker.COM to represent what mainstream backpackers are carrying into the hills. Then, we selected specific products, including a number of “lightweight” alternatives, and determined their weights. Here’s what we came up with:
So, that means that on a typical mild day, you’ll be carrying close to seven pounds of clothing in your pack. That’s no so bad. If your in the Rockies…in WINTER! Let’s take a closer look at this list…
Let’s Lighten Up!
Recall from Part 2, Equipment Primer, some very important guidelines for reducing pack weight that we can apply to our clothing selection, the most important of which are (1) select the lightest possible item, and (2) select equipment appropriate for the season. These guidelines are the foundation of the three “axioms” for clothing selection defined herein.
Axiom #1. Don’t pack any more clothing than you can wear at one time.
In reviewing the list above (i.e., for torso clothing), you could remain warm wearing all of the following layers simultaneously:
- short sleeve t-shirt
- long sleeve t-shirt
- midweight long underwear top
- midweight fleece jacket
- waterproof-breathable rain shell jacket
This is really not a bad torso ensemble, although personally, I would argue that one of the t-shirts could be left behind.
How about the legs?
- hiking shorts
- hiking pants
- midweight long underwear bottoms
- waterproof-breathable pants
Again, this is a reasonable selection for the legs. Hat and gloves are necessary items, so you shouldn’t plan on removing them from your gear list. As for socks, extra pairs of clean and dry socks are key on a multi-day backpacking trip. A sun hat and bandanna are nearly mandatory above the tree line for sun protection. Gaiters and hiking boots really don’t contribute to “pack” weight, and a pair of camp sandals are sure a nice break from those heavy hiking boots at the end of the day, right?
However, let’s make some fundamental changes to the gear list, based on the following precept:
Axiom #2. Don’t carry more than one item that serves the same function.
With that in mind:
We’ve eliminated the short sleeve t-shirt and will wear the long-sleeve t-shirt, which will provide better sun and insect protection while hiking.
The hiking shorts we selected have a mesh liner–so we’re going sans underwear.
Do you really need hiking shorts AND hiking pants? How about a pair of convertibles with zip-off legs?
Assuming the rest of your load is light enough AND you are comfortable hiking in low-cut shoes, replace the boots with some very breathable trail running shoes; this will allow you to eliminate “camp shoes” because your trail shoes serve the same relaxing function with their laces loosened; in addition, you can get away with lighter socks that wick moisture better, and thus, you may not need a sock liner. Finally, shortie gaiters made for trail runners tend to be lighter than those made for boots.
Now let’s look at our revised list:
Note that just by altering our gear selection a bit, we are able to drop more than two pounds from our pack weight. Did we really sacrifice that much comfort? I will argue for a resounding, “No!”
But we can do better, especially if we are hiking at lower elevations, southern U.S. latitudes, or in the heat of mid-summer.
Axiom 3. Choose garments with the highest possible performance-to-weight ratio.
We replaced the Marmot Precip Jacket and Pants with a lighter combination (GoLite’s Squall and Reed). We cut the weight of our insulating layer in half by replacing the fleece with a high-loft synthetic vest. The silkweight and midweight wicking shirts seemed redundant, so we’ll just wear the silkweight shirt and leave the extra at home. We reduced the weight of our hat and gloves slightly by selecting 100 weight fleece in lieu of 200 weight fleece. The result is shedding more than a pound and a half from the second list, and about four pounds from the original list, albeit at the expense of some cold weather comfort and safety margin:
Recall our three rules for lightening up in the clothing department:
Don’t pack any more clothing than you can wear at one time.
Don’t carry more than one item that serves the same function.
Choose garments with the highest possible performance-to-weight ratio.
The beginning lightweight backpacker would not venture into the high mountains with the third type of clothing list. Learning to manage moisture effectively (by controlling your level of physical exertion), maximize your garments’ performance potential (by understanding its limitations), and digging deep into your reserves when things get tough (e.g., by bumping up your physical exertion a notch (i.e., go faster) when the temperatures drop), are key requirements in being able to successfully apply an “ultralight” (i.e., as opposed to a “light”) approach to clothing. These and other factors are discussed in detail in Jordan et al.’s Clothing and Sleep Systems for Mountain Hiking.
Gambling with your clothing selection has greater consequences than gambling with your other gear: hypothermia is the number one cause of death of backcountry travelers.
But if you do choose to roll the dice, keep that sleeping bag dry…
|Part 4: Cooking Equipment|
by M. Lee Van Horn
There are several different approaches to food preparation. The lightest option (the personal choice of this series’ Managing Editor, Alan Dixon) is to take food that requires no cooking. This eliminates the need for a pot, plasticware, stove and fuel – a savings of 1 to 2 lbs. A second option, exercised by Nimblewill Nomad, is to cook over open fires. This is prohibited in many wilderness areas (especially in alpine regions), and also requires that you have food that can be eaten without cooking, in case no dry wood is available to build a fire or there is a high risk of forest fire. “Leave no trace guidelines” should be followed. Most backpackers choose some type of stove to cook their food on.
So, you’ve decided that cold water and trail mix on a snowy morning isn’t your idea of a delicious breakfast? You have also realized that your 13-oz. Whisperlite, even without fuel and canister, is anything but “lite.” After a shelter, sleeping system, and backpack, new cooking gear may offer you the biggest weight savings for your dollar. There are three types of ultralight stoves: fuel tablet stoves that burn solid fuel and usually include some sort of pot holder; alcohol stoves, which are often homemade and burn denatured alcohol; and very small—albeit expensive—stoves that screw into fuel canisters. All of these weigh between 3 and 4 ounces, although the amount of fuel used for each will vary, thus affecting the total weight.
A major advantage of a homemade alcohol-burning stove is that it is very cheap. These stoves are efficient—in fact, close to the efficiency of commercially-available canister stoves. Denatured alcohol is also cheap and can be carried on airplanes, although it may be difficult to find in trail head towns and may have you looking for it in the local hardware store. Keep in mind that air travel with other kinds of fuel may be a problem – or prohibited. Fuel tabs are somewhat more expensive and not as easy to come by. Search Google for “Wings homemade stove archives” for directions for many homemade alcohol and fuel tab stoves. A comparison of the most popular alcohol stoves and Esbit tabs (a well-known brand) by Don “Photon” Johnston can be found in the BackpackingLight E-Group archives (or, find instructions on making the “Photon” stove by searching Google for “Photon stove instructions”). If you use alcohol, you will need a container to store it in. Just about any leak-proof plastic container will do. I use empty rubbing alcohol bottles.
Recent demand has led to the development of light commercial stoves using non-refillable gas canisters. MSR makes the Pocket Rocket; Primus, the Alpine Micro Stove; and Snow Peak makes the Giga Power Stove. These stoves use a propane/butane mix in canisters that weigh about 8 oz. each and last for about 10 days on the trail. They don’t always work in very cold weather; and if you get one with a built-in ignition, it may not work in high altitudes. Four and 16 oz. fuel canisters are also available.
A windscreen makes any stove more efficient. These keep heat under the pot, saving you fuel (and thus weight). Make one! The cat food can stove in the Wings archive has easy directions for this. Last month’s issue has an article on a Homemade Canister Stove Windscreen.
A Container for Heating
Go to your attic and find the cooking kit you had in the Boy Scouts. The aluminum pot probably weighs about 7 ounces, and should be adequate to cook food for one. Or you can spend $35 on a titanium pot. A .9-liter pot is just big enough to cook for two hungry people. You will save 2 ounces or so for your $35. Some inexpensive aluminum pots at stores like K-Mart are very light and work fine for backpacking. Don’t forget, you can paint the bottom of the pot black with fireproof paint for somewhat greater efficiency. If you aren’t comfortable eating out of the same container as your companion, the lid can be used for a plate.
A Container for Drinking
Do you really need a mug? Why not share your coffee from the pot? If you want to drink coffee with your oatmeal, the cheapest and lightest option is the green plastic mug that came with the Boy Scout cooking kit (a 1-cup plastic mug weighs about 1 ounce). A titanium mug weighs about 2 oz. and will set you back about $20.
Since you’re not hauling your grandmother’s silver into the wilderness you probably won’t save much weight here. But you don’t need a spoon, fork and a knife for each person. A spoon is usually enough.
Man Cannot Live on Bread Alone
Water containers are essential. Save over a pound by discarding your old Nalgene bottles and using the flimsiest 20-oz to 1-liter plastic water bottles you can find in the grocery store. These are lighter than soda bottles and I’ve never had one break (although the caps start to leak after a year or so). If you know you’ll be camping dry or won’t find a water source for a long time, the large water bladders, like the Platypus, are your best bet. They are light and fold up when not in use, and are convenient for in-camp use in the evening.
Surviving the Food Chain
While few hikers become sustenance for larger carnivores, bears do get hungry. Take measures to protect the food you bring. Traditional methods include hanging one’s food (bears can have hours of fun with this kind of piñata) and stashing it in bearproof canisters. Among these are large plastic, graphite fiber or aluminum storage cans. Most of these are around 2 to 3 pounds and likely weigh more than your tent. A welcome innovation: bear bags made from bulletproof fabric (guarding against bears with guns?). The Ursack weighs 5 ounces and provides reliable bear protection for your food in most wilderness areas. In Yosemite and some other national parks with bears habituated to stealing food from humans, even the double-walled 11-oz Ursack Ultra is prohibited and will result in a heavy fine.
The Good News
If you are trying to reduce your pack weight, or are just venturing into backpacking, you don’t have to spend a fortune. If you don’t need a bear bag, you can follow these recommendations for just a few dollars. You can always upgrade to the more expensive items, but the cheap ones are just as functional with little difference in weight.
|Part 5: Trail Food|
by David J. Schultz
The author Henry Fielding wrote, “We must eat to live and live to eat.”
Nowhere is this more true than on the trail. After a long day on the trail, your body needs fuel. Furthermore, if you are like me, you will find that few things can make you forget the weariness in your limbs like a good meal. The challenge comes in trying to keep weight and bulk to a minimum while keeping nutrition and good taste to a maximum. As if this were not a hard enough balancing act I also place a high premium on ease of preparation and clean up. When cooking on the trail the hardest thing that I want to do is boil water and pour it in a bag.
Now I know what you are thinking, “Great! Another article on which brand of freeze dried meal tastes the least like sawdust.” Oh contraire, dear reader. Those freeze dried meals are about $7 each. On principal, I just can not bring myself to buy those things (see my other article in this issue, “Ultra Cheap, Ultra Light”). Price, however, is not the only problem that I have with using commercially prepared freeze dried backpacking meals. They tend to be bulky, the portions are sometimes on the smallish side, their quality is inconsistent, and they are often lacking in nutrition. There is one more reason I tend to avoid buying prepackaged trail meals… I love to cook. It is an ego thing and I don’t mind saying so. I find few things as satisfying as hearing comments on how small and light my pack looks as I walk into camp, how good my food smells and looks as I eat, and how nice it must be to only have to boil water and not even have to clean a pot when I’m done.
Unless you are a thru hiker who will be eating on the trail for many weeks in a row, nutrition while hiking means calories. A few days without the proper ratios of vitamins and minerals in our diet will not harm most of us. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore vitamins and minerals in your meal planning. It simply means that calories are king. A few days of hiking at a big caloric deficit can make you miserable and put a damper on an otherwise wonderful trip.
Going ultra light means that you can go farther and faster than you were able with your old heavy pack. Twenty-plus-mile days are common in ultralight circles. While this new found freedom is made possible by shedding pounds, you do pay a penalty in increased energy usage. In his book, “Factors and Formulas for Computing Respiratory Exchange and Biological Transformations of Energy”, T. M. Carpenter lists the caloric expenditure of almost every activity imaginable, including sleeping and hiking. Search Google for the “House of Nutrition” site, which has this type of information. I found that my 225 lb. body will burn well over 6500 Calories during an 18 mile day of hiking that includes 3000 feet of elevation gain.
This is probably a good time to include a note of caution. There are many methods and variables involved in the calculation of caloric expenditure. Your best calculation is only an estimate to use as a starting point. The key is to test your estimate in the field on shorter trips. It would be foolish to pack food for a 2 week trip based solely on an untested calculation of caloric expenditure. After some field testing on shorter trips you will soon get an instinctive feel for how much food you need for hiking in various conditions.
To put this caloric expenditure in perspective, 11 Big Macs contain something in the neighborhood of 6300 Calories and weigh about 5 lbs. Think of it, a five day trip would require that I carry 55 Big Macs. These would certainly fill up a big pack and would weigh more than all of my gear combined. You can see that we have to find trail food that is more calorie dense than Big Macs. With any luck our trail food will also taste better too.
Butter has roughly 200 Calories per ounce. A big Mac has 80 Calories per ounce. I have read that some ultra lighters try to average 150 Calories per ounce of food. However, a diet that averaged 150 Calories per ounce would, of necessity, be very high in fats and not terribly interesting. A generally accepted target is an average of 125+ Calories per ounce of food. At an average of 125 Calories per ounce my 18 mile days would only require 3.25 lbs of food per day. The USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory (hey, you should be a Google expert by now) website has a searchable database of just about every food imaginable and lists, among other things, the calories per 100 grams of a given food.
Note: Technically, the energy value of food is measured in Calories, not calories. Each food Calorie is actually a kilocalorie or 1000 calories. This may be confusing when consulting scientific web sites.
How This Really Works
After looking at the Calories per ounce in a variety of foods you will probably notice that it is not easy to make an interesting diet from only foods that pack 125 Calories or more per ounce. The secret here is to remember that we are talking about an average of 125 Calories (kcal) per ounce in your diet. For example, 1 oz of raisins has only 82 kcal. But, when that one ounce of raisins is combined with 1 oz of gold fish crackers (141 kcal) and 1 ounce of cashews (160 kcal), the resulting “trail mix” contains an average of 127 kcal per ounce. For dinner, 190 grams of dry instant rice (enough to make 2 cups of cooked rice), contains only 107 kcal per dry ounce, but when some tomato powder, dried vegetables, spice and 1 oz of butter flavored or pepper flavored oil is added, the resulting Spanish Rice contains about 125 kcal per ounce of dry weight. The key to making a tasty diet that is also calorie dense is stacking the deck with ultra high calorie foods. Such foods include: nuts, peanut butter, chocolate, butter, oils, snack chips and crackers, pepperoni, and pre-packaged cooked bacon.
My standard operating procedure when I plan meals is to work around the number of calories that I think I will need in a day. First I create dinner, being careful to note its caloric content. Next I create lunch, again noting the calories. Lastly, I fill in the remaining calories for the day in the form of snacks to be eaten through out the day. I do not typically eat “breakfast”; I just start snacking as soon as I wake up. I have a tendency to not eat enough during the day which can result in a horrible “crash” in the mid afternoon when my body runs out of energy. To combat this I eat a snack at least once an hour whether hungry or not.
Dinner is the BIG meal of the day for me. It is more than just a meal; it is a ritual of relaxation. I don’t eat dinner while I walk. Even if I am in bear country, I eat a few miles before I stop to set up my camp for the night and take my time. I don’t rush dinner, but neither do I want to be bothered much with its preparation. Dinner is when I sit down and relax. My body unwinds a bit from the work of the day as I boil water and then savor my repast. I have found a technique which allows easy preparation and clean up as well as providing tasty and nutritious food.
I make my dinners in single serving bags which require only that I add boiling water and wait for several minutes while the food “cooks”. I then eat my meal straight from the bag. When I’m through eating I zip the bag back up and pack it out. There is no pot cleaning for me on the trail. My current packaging bags of choice are the one quart size Glad “Stand and Zip” bags. These bags are much stronger than regular freezer zip locks and easily stand up to boiling water. After the meal is bagged, I simply roll the bag up and place a rubber band around it. A dinner packaged like this will withstand a tremendous amount of abuse. When packaging these meals at home I start with the dinner foundation first. This is typically a starch such as pasta, rice or potato flakes. Often a prepackaged rice or noodle side dish is the foundation. Next in the bag goes whatever suits my fancy: dehydrated veggies, meat, tofu crumbles, and spices. I write down the caloric content and the amount of water and oil (or ghee) needed on the outside of the bag. Occasionally, I will forget to record the amounts of the different ingredients and have to guess at the amount of water to use. A good rule of thumb is one cup of water for every one cup of dry ingredients. If you put in too much water, just gradually add a bit of couscous, instant rice or potato flakes to absorb the excess. Finally the bag is zipped shut and all excess air is forced out. To prepare the meal simply boil the appropriate amount of water, add the boiling water and oil to the bag, seal it, mash the contents around through the closed bag to mix, wrap the bag in some unused clothing to insulate it (often unnecessary), and wait 5 to 15 minutes (depending upon what you are cooking).
Your local supermarket can provide most of the foods for your hiking pantry. Health food, ethnic food, and online specialty food stores will provide variety and some harder to find items. Here is a list of some things that typically go into my “easy cook” hiking meals:
- Prepackaged rice or noodle based side dishes (I only get those that cook in less than 8 minutes.)
- Instant potatoes (I especially like the flavored varieties. Try several as the taste varies greatly among brands.)
- Ramen noodles
- Angel hair pasta (This will cook by being submerged in boiling water with no simmering needed.)
- Instant rice
- Dried refried bean flakes
- Dehydrated or freeze dried vegetables ( I dehydrate most of my own – it is really easy and cheap. These can also be purchased online from Enertia Trail Foods or Just Tomatoes, Etc.)
- Powdered gravy or sauce mix
- Oil (I typically use olive oil or flavored oils. The popcorn section of most supermarkets has butter flavored oils.)
- Clarified butter or ghee (If you want to make this at home a quick web search on “clarified butter” or “ghee” will yield dozens of hits. One of my favorites is at Ayurvedic Foundations web site. Ghee can also be purchased in stores that sell food from India. As long as no moisture is introduced to the ghee it does not require refrigeration.)
- Grated Parmesan Cheese
- Sour Cream powder
- Dehydrated cooked ground beef, chicken, or tuna ( Some freeze dried meats are available commercially, but they cost an arm and a leg, so I dehydrate my own.)
- Dehydrated tofu crumbles (Tofu crumbles – a ground beef substitute – are available in many grocery stores. I then dehydrate them for trail use. Their taste and texture are very much like ground beef.)
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP is available in many health food stores.)
Lunch, to a lesser extent than dinner, is also a time of relaxation for me. On most days by the time I stop for lunch, I have already been walking for 4 or 5 hours. I typically will make lunch a one hour rest stop that allows me to catch my breath, wiggle my toes, and let my socks and shoes air out. Again, ease of preparation is key to me so I rarely heat lunch. Current lunch favorites include peanut butter, honey, crackers, pound cake, flat bread, pepperoni, cheese, dried fruit, and nuts.
Trail snacks usually consist of anything that I can eat while walking. Lately I find myself munching various brands and types of high nutrition food bars (the excellent Luna brand of bars are my current favorite), the old standby – gorp, home made trail bars, various flavors of sweet cakes that come from military MREs, and goodies from the Little Debbie family of snacks.
After dinner snacks are always a part of my hiking cuisine. Typically, I will bag a half box of “no bake” cheese cake or perhaps some instant rice or bread pudding. If stealth camping (no cooking where I sleep), desert can be my first meal the next morning.
Condiments and extras play an important part in the overall enjoyment of a trip. There is always a ¼ ounce of Tabasco brand pepper sauce and ¼ ounce of spicy seasoned salt in the food bag. The added weight is negligible, the enjoyment is not. I usually take a small amount of spirits. Depending upon the trip and mood my preference in choice of spirits will fall toward one of two extremes. I may bring a wee dram ‘o the peaty dew, i.e. a small quantity of a fine single malt scotch (usually Lagavulin from the Isle of Islay). At the other end of the spectrum are the makings for a true ultra light cocktail – a few ounces of 190 proof grain spirits and vitamin fortified Crystal Light drink mix powder. The high proof spirits give twice as much bang for the weight and serves double duty as both stove fuel and an effective disinfectant. Sometimes the liquor goes home unopened and sometimes it disappears during the first night.
|Part 6: Water Treatment|
by George Cole
Unless you’ve never been backpacking, I’ll assume you’re using a combination of a pump filter and some sort of water storage container. This means you’re probably carrying at least a pound of water treatment and storage gear. I hope no one is still carrying all the water they’ll need, even for a short trip, unless they’re going where there are no natural water sources. Water weighs more for it’s volume – about 35 ounces per liter – than almost any other thing you need to survive.
Therefore, I believe that there are two elements to a “water treatment” weight reduction strategy: the equipment you use and how much water you carry.
You have a range of choices when choosing gear. There’s the extreme minimalist approach – take your chances and drink right from the source. You may get away with this for years but some nasty bug will eventually catch you and you won’t like the result. It’s messy in a particularly unpleasant way, can be life threatening, most medical treatments are hard on the liver and kidneys, and some people never completely recover.
Then there’s the minimalist approach – treat the water with chemicals. You can use an iodine compound such as Polar Pur or a chlorine dioxide compound such as Aqua Mira or Pristine (chlorine dioxide – appears to be more effective). The good news is that your treatment system will weigh only ounces. The downside is murky water and the time it takes for the chemical to work. Effectiveness can be improved and some treatment time saved by filtering out the suspended particles on which bacteria reside in relatively high numbers. You can do this using a paper coffee filter, a bandana, or a scrap of fine cloth.
The mainstream lightweight approach is to make your water storage container part of your treatment system. Usually this means a hydration bag (e.g., Platypus, Camelback, etc.) with a small filter (e.g., Safe Water Anywhere or Seychelle) spliced into the drinking tube although some backpackers prefer to use a dual bag gravity feed system. An advantage to this type of system is that you can drink more water more often because you can drink while walking. It is generally safe for healthy folks for any North American water source.
However, your immune-compromised water treatment editor, yours truly, takes the hydration bag system farther – a homemade silk muck filter, an in-line Sweetwater Siltstopper II pre-filter, and an in-line Safe Water Anywhere filter. I also treat the unfiltered water with Aqua Mira. It’s safer, cleaner, better tasting water than I can get at home, and the whole kit weighs only 11 ounces (wet).
Your water consumption strategy is a more important step in reducing the weight you’re carrying. Essentially, water is easier to carry and does you more good when it’s inside you instead of on your back. Here’s my approach.
Where water is relatively abundant (at least one source every five miles or so, requiring that I know where reliable sources are beforehand), I drink as much as possible first thing in the morning and before starting to hike. Then I carry no more than one liter of water to the next water stop. At each stop I drink any clean water I have left then drink at least a liter of newly filtered water (my system lets me do this safely right away). Then I carry no more than one liter to the next stop. An added benefit to this pre-hydration strategy is how much better I feel and how much more energy I have throughout the day. The downside – I have to stop to pee more often. Some ultralight backpackers take this strategy to the extreme, drinking only at sources and carrying none. This approach is all right if you’re absolutely sure where the next reliable source is and you can make it there comfortably but doesn’t leave you with any margin for error.
|Part 7: Miscellaneous Essentials|
by Rick Dreher
Each time we head out into the woods (or mountains, or desert, or jungle, or…), whether it’s for a couple of hours or a couple of months, there are some basic items everybody should carry – the “essentials.”
For years, the Mountaineers have been teaching the “Ten Essentials” concept of backcountry preparedness, providing a foundation of small items that every hiker should carry that could prove to be life-saving.
Having “cut my Vibrams” learning to backpack in the suffocating woods of western Washington, I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to become completely disoriented wandering just a few dozen feet off the trail. A tangled second-growth forest blocks the view skyward and the dense brush underneath makes bushwacking a straight line a trying exercise. The normal Washington State cloud stretching from horizon to horizon eliminates any sense of where the sun may be, and before you know it, you’re lost. But if you’ve got some simple tools in your pack, you stand a better chance of “unlosing” yourself or, if worse comes to worse, keeping yourself well until you’re found.
This article is not about dealing with backcountry emergencies. Its humble goal is to start you thinking about standard items for your essentials kit. Who you are, where you live and hike, and who you travel with, all influence what you should carry – there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. My emphasis here is two-fold: first, make some well-reasoned decisions about what items should comprise your kit; and second, take this kit every time you go for a hike. The good news for lightweight backpackers is that this list need not add up to much weight or much money spent. Careful choices will keep both to a minimum while, at the same time, keep you prepared on the trail.
Here is a typical list of essentials:
- Bug repellent
- * Firestarting supplies
- * First aid kit
- * Flashlight
- * Food
- * Knife
- * Map & compass
- * Water / water treatment
- * Whistle
In assembling your kit, you’ll want to always include certain items – they are marked with an asterisk. The others listed will either go or stay at home depending on where you’re headed and what time of year you’re traveling.
I once joined another party hiking out of the Sierra. One fellow was a sculptor who specialized in creating animal forms. During the conversation I more than once referred to “bugs” and was each time corrected, “that’s insects.” I decided not to ask “what about arachnids?” and instead vowed to use bugs as my preferred term from then on. (I like very much that Aussies include lobsters as members of the bug family). Bugs of however many legs can be both an annoyance and a health threat. Mosquito- and tick-borne diseases are no joke – as disease vectors, mosquitoes kill more people worldwide than any other animal. In North America the situation isn’t nearly as dire, but ticks and mosquitoes here can and do transmit fatal diseases. Carrying protection is a good idea.
The only reliable and proven repellent against serious mosquito populations is DEET, and a small bottle or tube of DEET-containing repellent should be included in the seasonal pack. I prefer the time-release formulas. In my (thankfully) limited experience with black flies and “noseeums,” DEET also provides some benefit. Standing near a smoky fire and flailing the air wildly with your arms is useful for bugs that can’t be repelled by DEET. Before leaving home, consider spraying your clothing with a permethrin treatment if you’re anticipating especially buggy conditions (in addition to carrying repellant). The combination of permithrin-treated clothing and a DEET-based repellent provides solid bug protection with very little weight.
The good news is that in winter you can leave it all at home, saving at least an ounce!
* Firestarting Supplies
In the Scouting program, we spent considerable energy learning the manly art of fire building. In the soggy Northwest, that can be a tall order. In today’s canister stove/leave-no-trace world, fires aren’t used as much and are often discouraged (even banned in some sensitive places). In addition, if you’re venturing into an alpine zone or the desert, fire fuel of any kind may be unavailable. Still, the ability to build a fire is an important skill to have and your kit should have the things you need to do so in lousy (wet) conditions.
Regardless of the type of trip you take, a fire source – matches and/or a lighter – is a necessary item to pack, if only to light a candle or a stove. Strike anywhere matches tend to work poorly in wet conditions, but a handful of “storm” matches (which have extra-long burning tips) like those distributed by REI can be invaluable.
In addition, depending on your destination, some sort of fire starter (i.e., something to maintain heat for several minutes) is useful in order to light damp tinder. There are many options available, both commercial and homemade. There’s no point of going overboard here – in fact, a simple 0.5 oz tea light candle can serve both as a fire starter and, well, a candle. An even lighter option is a 0.1 oz birthday cake candle.
Above all, keep your firestarting supplies dry. The ultralight backpacker usually chooses a double-Ziploc bag.
* First Aid Kit
We’ve all seen the kits available commercially, ranging from a few bandages in a baggie to a four-pound surgical kit. Because we’re concerned with options for lightweight hiking, we’ll suppress our grievous-injury paranoia and assemble a reasonable kit to cover the basics. For additional perspectives on first aid supplies and kit weight, be sure to read Face-Off: First and Emergency Equipment, by Bill Thorneloe, Dave Schultz, and Ryan Jordan, an article found at BackpackingLight.com.
Doing it yourself saves money and weight and yields a better kit than one purchased commercially.
The common treatable outdoor injuries tend to be cuts, scrapes, blisters and burns. You’ll want to include:
- An assortment of bandages, tape, and pads for both small “boo-boos” and larger wounds
- Wound cleansing supplies (alcohol swabs, triple-antibiotic ointment, and maybe even an irrigation syringe)
- Moleskin for foot blisters
- Antibacterial ointment
- Cortisone cream of some kind
- Tweezers (if not available as part of your knife)
Small quantities of painkillers, antihistamines, and decongestants add little bulk and weight. Date these so you know when to replace them. I usually include a needle and thread – intended primarily for gear repair but also useful for sliver removal and – Heaven help me – closing wounds (consider butterfly bandages as an option here, or even a Super Glue type adhesive). Some folks include latex gloves and CPR masks. Finally, a bit of baking soda can help in treating stings and bites.
Possessing, as I do, a brain packed full of commercial jingles and old telephone numbers means I can’t remember unimportant information like first aid techniques. I have a tiny sub-one-ounce guide to help me out. A complete first aid kit in a baggie weighs a scant few ounces and costs little to assemble. Make two—one for your backpack and the other for your daypack. Leave them in at all times.
There’s no excuse for a lightweight backpacker to leave a flashlight home, especially given that the little LED button-cell lights weigh less than half an ounce. Some of these are bright enough to guide you down a clear trail after dark. Any will help you rig an emergency shelter, read, or examine your pack contents. Flashlights and their headlamp cousins warrant an entire article unto themselves – which variety you choose to carry is entirely up to you. Routinely check them at home before you head out to ensure that the batteries are fresh and that the bulb is intact. A spare bulb is a good idea for incandescent flashlights due to their inherent fragility, but one of the big advantages of LED technology is the tremendous durability and longevity of the bulbs.
Some sort of storable food ration can be included as part of an emergency kit. The so-called “sports bars” are a good option – they have a long shelf life and provide a more enduring energy boost than a candy bar (due to their higher percentage of fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates). Food can benefit you in at least three ways: it can provide sugars to overcome the dreaded “bonk” (the depletion of your glycogen reserves), it can help ward off the cold, and it can simply improve your mood – and a good mental state of being enhances your judgment, meaning you’re likely to make better decisions during trying circumstances.
In the pre-lightweight days it was considered important to always return home with some amount of food left in the pack – a sign that you had an emergency ration. I still believe and follow this maxim.
Knives and multitools span the gamut, from the tiny and simple to the wondrously complex. Some folks will model themselves after MacGuyver and select that perfect Swiss Army Knife featuring enough blades to build a woodland city and, should the script call for it, overhaul a 737 engine. I even went through a Jim Bowie phase around the time I was a Boy Scout, finding the biggest sheath knife my allowance would accommodate. What a disappointment: not only would the thing never stick in the tree, it had no other apparent uses. I’ve since acquired a series of progressively shrinking Swiss Army knives, among other options.
Over many years of hiking, I’ve narrowed down my actual knife uses to some basics:
- cutting thread, cord, twigs, tape, fabric, fishing line, food, dead skin, etc.
- screwing/unscrewing screws
- poking holes
- filing metal, wood, nails (of the finger and toe variety)
For all of these functions I’ve found that either a tiny Swiss Army Classic pocketknife or a nearly-as-small multitool – the Leatherman Micra – will fit the bill. Their tiny blades will not spread peanut butter but they can certainly handle most cutting jobs encountered by a backpacker. Since cutting is oftentimes better done with scissors, I always make sure my choice of tool includes them. Because these knives are small, I recommend that you keep it on a lanyard (a.k.a., “dummy cord”), perhaps along with your tiny LED flashlight, and attach it to either a belt loop or your pack. If you do this, I can’t promise that you won’t lose it, but if you don’t, I can promise that you will.
* Map and Compass
Few things more wasteful than a map and compass in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use them. Before you hit the trail, ask yourself an honest question: do you or anybody else in your party know how to use a map and compass?
Let’s assume that answer is yes. Further, let’s assume that the map is accurate, up-to-date and covers the entire area you’re visiting. So-called 15-minute maps are generally detailed enough, but sometimes the more detailed 7.5-minute maps (i.e., based on USGS quadrangles) are required for technical cross-country jaunts and in more “tortured” terrain. Keep paper maps in a Ziploc bag for protection. Maps printed on plastic are tougher and demand less care. Waterproof topographic maps are increasingly available from public land management agencies, including the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.
All good compasses are liquid filled (the converse is not true: all liquid-filled compasses are not necessarily good ones). Your compass should feature declination adjustment to discern between magnetic and true north. If you’re planning on taking bearings using map and compass, your compass will need a side long enough to allow you to draw your triangulation lines. (Bring a pencil and straightedge too.) A hinged compass with a mirror gives you a way to apply your sunblock and check your contacts. It has advanced navigation uses too, but that’s a topic for a different article.
Some compass features appearing on “multi-use” compasses include a built-in whistle, a map-distance measuring device, and an inclinometer. Some have glow-in-the-dark needles and bearing rings. Any compass you carry should be fitted with a lanyard and kept handy for frequent use.
The caveat about ascertaining your location using map and compass is that there may be situations in which you’ll have no view of physical landmarks required for taking bearings. One piece of advice I heard recently from an orienteer is to actively use your map and compass the entire time you’re hiking in order to continually establish where you are and are headed, based on the terrain. This makes good sense, and works against the typical leave-them-in-the-pack-until-needed approach. The flip side of this hyper-aware method is to note that some PCT thru-hikers never once touch their map and compass during the entire 2,600-mile journey. Not all trails, however, are marked as a National Scenic Trail, and even the PCT has to pass though clearcuts and confusing road crossings.[Editor’s Note: More and more lightweight backpackers are entering the wilderness with wrist watches having altimeter and compass capability. Particularly in mountainous areas and steep terrain, it can be much faster to navigate with an altimeter than with a compass. Several manufacturers make such devices, with Suunto generally being regarded as offering the highest quality and most accurate devices.]
If you’re headed for the deep woods of Maine or a triple-canopy rainforest, or taking a soggy wintertime oceanside hike, you can leave the sunblock at home. Otherwise, keep a small tube in your pack. There are seemingly, a million formulas available, with the A and B UV types getting the most attention lately. Some of these are throwbacks to the old days, containing either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in a colloidal suspension. Whatever your preference, just remember to bring it and use it. Especially remember to apply it on overcast days when you’re on snow or water (e.g., canoeing). In these situations, some of the most serious burns seem to happen on days when the sun never officially pops into view. If you have a bigger bottle than you want to carry, transfer some into something small, like a film canister.
You can protect your eyes from wind, bright sun and dust by wearing a decent pair of glasses. Match the glasses to the need – summertime travel on alpine snowfields requires very dark lenses with side protection (snow-blindness can immobilize you for several days). Cold, windy, and snowy conditions might even call for goggles, while a rainforest hike might require nothing at all. Choices in glasses are endless, just make sure that they fit well – ill-fitting glasses are a unique form of torture.
* Water / Water Treatment
Always carry either water or some means of gathering and treating water. Let your destination be your guide as to which type and how much. If you have to carry all your water, test yourself: do you still have some left when you return to the trailhead? That’s a good indication you’ve taken enough.
For more information on water treatment options, check out Part 6, Water Treatment.
“You do know how to whistle, don’t you?”
A simple item often overlooked, a whistle is a good way to get in contact with wayward members of your party or with potential rescuers. Voices typically don’t carry well in the wilderness, particularly in wooded areas. The sound from a whistle carries well. Three short whistle blasts (or three shouts) is a universally recognized distress signal.
Note to parents: Equip your kids with whistles, always worn on a neck lanyard, and emphasize that they are not to be used as toys.
Excluding water (slightly more than one pound per pint), a typical “essentials” kit for lightweight hiking might weigh one or two pounds. The cost is difficult to pin down, but the largest expense items will usually be knife/multitool ($10-50), the compass ($5-50) and the sunglasses ($10-200). Everything else is certainly a minor expense, and many of these items are probably laying around your home. I hope you’ll agree that the minor weight and expense of assembling and carrying your kit are a small price to pay for your safety.
Other essential kit contents might include an emergency shelter/Mylar blanket, extra clothing, utility cord, snakebite kit, signaling device, etc. – use your experience and imagination in making your kit unique but useful. The most important thing to remember is that you should pack your essential kit every time you hike, be it for one day or one week.
|Part 8: Nonessentials|
by Rick Dreher
Preparing for every trip brings a host of packing dilemmas: do I take this (fill in the blank) or leave it behind? While dyed-in-the-wool (polypropylene?) ultralighters will never be found with extraneous items in their kit, the rest of us take some extras along. What makes decision time so tough for the lightweight backpacker is the following dilemma: If I take it all, my light pack isn’t light any longer.
Our challenge as fun-loving lightweight types is to match our gadgets to both the trip and our own interests. Hobbies are the most common source of extra gear. Also contributing are an interest in nature, the love of reading, the lure of good trail food, the hunt for the wily trout, etc. Type A personalities and the easily distracted may want to carry some source of entertainment. All of these items seem quite legitimate – so how do we feed our habits and still keep things light?
This far into adulthood, I still require frequent counseling on self-restraint. That means both not taking every gadget I might possibly want, and not taking the most over-the-top (heavy) version of a given gadget. There’s a world of difference in weight and bulk between a 50-band radio and an ear-bud FM receiver, or between 12×50 binoculars and a 6×18 monocular. Tradeoffs, my friends, is the name of this game.
What follows is a smorgasbord of goodies. As the sign says, “Take all you want, but eat all you take.” The list is, of necessity, long on bulk and short on specifics. Many of the item groups warrant an article of their own (a discussion of lightweight cameras and photography alone deserves its own book). Because backpackers are tremendously varied in our areas of interest, you’ll think of more categories than I have put together here. That’s okay – we can write more articles (they don’t weigh anything).
I’ve chosen to lump everything into one of two groups: stuff that takes batteries and stuff that doesn’t (no letters please about your handcrank radio, battery free Leica M-3 or squeezy Russian flashlight).
Stuff that Takes Batteries
I promised myself I’d keep this section short but I failed miserably. Feel free, encouraged even, to simply skim for useful tidbits. Cameras are a subject dear to my heart – as gadgets, they cannot be beat. Today there are so many options that I truly feel the pain of a newcomer to this field. I also feel sorry for myself, as I seem unable to catch up with everything that has happened in the last several years. Some basic categories: 35mm single lens reflex (SLR), 35mm point and shoot (P&S), 35mm rangefinder, one-use disposable, APS, digital. There are also mid format, the true minis and lastly, there are the video camcorders.
What to do, confronted as we are with this embarrassment of riches? Let the need decide the medium. Do you want snapshots as simple reminders of where you’ve been or do you want to create artfully detailed scenics? Do you want portraits or action footage? Do you want wildlife or wildflower close-ups? For viewing, do you want prints, live video, web page images, slides? Is moderate picture quality (resolution and color saturation) acceptable or do you want gallery quality? I suppose I should also ask, do you want color or black and white?
APS cameras have the greatest “gee whiz” appeal to me – they’re small, light and more or less foolproof. Sadly, I have had to stay away due to their small negative size (reducing print quality and enlargement range) and extremely limited film choices (no slide film at all). But, if snapshot-quality pictures are what you’re after, APS cameras are an excellent choice for the lightweight hiker. Tiny metal-clad models from Nikon, Canon and Contax are especially intriguing, and will coax the most quality from this film medium.
Snapshot-quality is also what you’ll get from disposable cameras and many 35mm point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras. That said, I was pleasantly surprised recently at the quality of the prints from one of the better disposables – a Kodak model that sports an improved lens, an optical viewfinder, and a flash. Fuji makes something similar. Disposables are both cheap and lightweight. Don’t overlook the fact that if you ruin one, you’re not out much money. Of course, if you’re going for very long you may have to pack several, eliminating the weight and space advantages.
Inexpensive P&S cameras deliver similar quality to disposables, with the obvious advantage of allowing you to use any (print) film you’d like in any length. All have a built in flash and some come with zoom lenses. Most have autofocus capabilities. As you go up in price, size and complexity, P&S image quality improves. Too, zoom ranges become greater and the lens speeds, faster. Some P&S models are water-resistant and some have remote controls. Note that only the best P&S cameras give reliable results shooting slide film. Olympus has an impressively lightweight range of P&S models (Stylus Epic series) that are fairly well-regarded in their quality. Pentax has larger ones that are more rugged and produce good results. For the cost-is-no-object crowd, Leica, Nikon, Minox and Contax make some of the finest P&S cameras on the market that are capable of producing gallery-quality photos from both print and slide films. Only a couple of these qualify as lightweight options.
I don’t own a P&S, but if I did, it would have a reasonably fast fixed focal length lens that was up to the task of shooting slides. It would allow as much manual control as possible (over shutter speed, lens aperture, auto focus, film speed setting, fill flash, backlight compensation). I also prefer metal cladding to plastic. Such cameras exist and they aren’t cheap. [Editor’s Note: cameras that might fit Rick’s bill here include the Olympus Stylus Epic, Yashica T4/Super, and the Contax T-series].
35mm SLRs are the Swiss Army knives of the camera world. They’re available in all shapes and sizes and all levels of capability and complexity. SLR lenses span an astonishing spectrum and represent the zenith of sophisticated optical design and construction. 35mm film choices are likewise unlimited and, with the murderous competition between major film manufacturers, incredibly inexpensive for what they deliver.
For those on a budget there are easily 25 years’ worth of good used 35mm camera gear to pick from, with the advantage of giving you access to some purely mechanical older cameras that don’t die along with their meter batteries. New, there are plenty of fairly compact, plastic-bodied SLRs with competent zoom lenses that will handle eighty percent of the shooting needs you’ll encounter. Auto-focus, complex metering schemes, built-in flash, and speedy automatic winders are now all common. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries!
35mm (interchangeable lens) rangefinders are included here because that’s what I’ve been using most recently. They’re similar to smaller SLRs in size and weight, but offer certain advantages in lens size and design, and they eliminate SLR mirror blanking and vibration when shooting. In my view the biggest advantage that rangefinders offer is that their lens designs don’t suffer from the design compromises necessitated by the SLR configuration, and are capable of delivering stunning quality at a fraction of the size and complexity. Some are even affordable (a relative term in photography). Voigtlander, Konica, Contax and Leica are contemporary makers of 35mm rangefinders.
Rangefinders of special merit: if you want simplicity, low weight and good optical quality, the old Rollei 35 series and Olympus XA fixed lens rangefinders may be the best backpacking cameras ever made.
I mention mid-format cameras in passing only because I once lugged a Hasselblad, two lenses, two film backs, a prism finder, and meter on a long hiking trip. Once was enough; the gear alone weighed the better portion of ten pounds. Some noted nature and wildlife pros shoot in mid format. God help them all.
Digital still cameras are the most rapidly advancing segment in photo technology. There is a veritable flood of digital cameras hitting the market with an even greater wave to come. As recently as two years ago most were worthless for anything more than a rudimentary photographic record but today, image quality can be remarkably good. The ability to load directly to a computer, or print directly from the camera itself, is hard to resist. I’m not qualified to give a detailed briefing on digital cameras or to recommend any models. What I’d look for if I were buying one would be a quality optical zoom lens; high pixel resolution; a high capacity, common and affordable removable storage medium (e.g., compact flash card or recordable disc); interchangeable batteries (preferably something common); and both optical and electronic display viewfinders.
The biggest disadvantage of the digital medium is the rapid obsolescence of digital cameras. But for the lightweight fan, there are some miniscule prototypes in development that, if they make it to production, will give us an imaging system that weighs a couple of ounces and takes up the space of a candy bar. Who could resist that?
While I don’t personally understand why people lug video camcorders on a hiking trip, I see enough of them to know they’re popular. Inevitably, the camcorder-lugger is panning from a peak or pass, doubtless zooming in and out like mad at the same time. Because they have benefited from the magic of miniaturization, camcorders are reasonably within the realm of the lightweight backpacker, many weighing less than an SLR with a telephoto lens. Digital camcorders seem like the obvious choice of the breed, since they let you capture good quality still images along with your footage for the next Blair Witch release (“Who Stole My Little Debbie Bar?”). As with digital still cameras, battery type and longevity are important considerations. In addition, all this electronic stuff hates water and cold, and cannot be bounced off rocks.
True Mini Cameras
There have been some tiny camera options over the years, the best known perhaps being the Minox – which records an unbelievably small eight by eleven millimeter image on special film (compare that to 35mm’s 24 by 36mm image). You’ve probably seen them used in ‘60s spy flicks. Amazingly, Minoxes are still made, beautifully in fact, and are also pretty darn expensive. Not intrigued yet? Their smallest model weighs 55 grams. (Minox also markets 35mm P&Ss, so don’t be confused if you happen to see one of these.) For less of a financial bite you might look for one of the 110-series cartridge cameras widely sold in the ‘70s. There were a handful of “serious” models fitted with good quality lenses, and I still occasionally see the film for sale.
I’m coming to the realization that when I’m backpacking, I can’t hold a camera steady. Between a racing heartbeat and shaky muscles, only the highest shutter speeds will yield a really sharp image. Tripods, monopods and other camera-steadying gizmos are all worth consideration for the backcountry photographer. Some hiking poles come with a camera attachment. The little “Ultrapods” accessory tripods are small, light and can be strapped to other objects (trees, ice axes, etc.). Some folks even use a beanbag to steady their camera – how about trying your trail mix?
Cell phones are a love-it-or-hate-it gadget. If you’re headed to an area where you can get reception, a cell phone can be a lifesaver in an emergency. When I carry mine it doesn’t make me sleep any better but someone back at home does. So, I’ll lug the extra weight because it provides four ounces of domestic feather-soothing! I leave it in the pack because I’m not hiking and conducting business as though I’m on a golf course. The lightest cell phones I’ve seen are around three ounces. The digital phones seem to have a much longer battery life than the analog types. I’ve never seen a cell phone that takes standard batteries, meaning you’ll have to rely on its rechargeable battery pack.
Global Positioning Systems
Teetering between toy and necessity, the GPS has become accurate, light and affordable. I had one that I received as a Christmas present until recently, when I sent it down a mountainside (long story). The point is this: I miss it. The lightest are now under six ounces (and Casio even has a wristwatch version). The best GPS units offer map overlays that will also store proposed routes, and can communicate with mapping software on your PC. GPS units record your actual routes and display your waypoints. Some also have electronic compasses and barometric altimeters. GPSs are becoming very popular in sports other than backpacking, so they will undoubtedly receive a great deal of R&D attention. As a consequence, you can continue to expect smaller, lighter, and more functional units – I don’t think that a two ounce, AAA-powered GPS unit is out of the question in the next few years. If you get one, make sure it’s waterproof and has only the features you really want. More features mean a higher price tag and a lower battery life.
Personal Digital Assistants
I have to bring up PDAs because so many folks are now married to these things. When you think about it, storing route information, recipes, first aid instructions, and who knows what other references on a PDA makes sense – a PDA has a huge capacity to store and display documents for no added weight. Some hikers compose their journals on them and then download over the phone when they arrive in town, in order to update friends and family about their trip progress. Many can also handle email and web browsing tasks. Think of it – get the latest articles from BackpackingLight.COM from town while you’re doing the laundry! Some also store MP3 music for those in need of their Walkman fix.
The big PDA technology dividing line is the presence of a keyboard. If you’re a writer, a keyboard is probably mandatory. If simply jotting notes, a Palm-type touchscreen is probably fine and keeps the unit smaller and lighter. Many run off standard batteries – those with built-in rechargeables are ill-suited to long trips. Color screens are suck the juice out of batteries and are impractical for backpacking.
AM, FM, TV, MW, SW, WB, CB…there are a host of possible reasons to carry a radio. The lightweight backpacker will quickly focus on the truly tiny options. Simplest are the headphone-only AM/FM models. These can weigh less than two ounces with battery and earphones. Size, complexity and weight increase as you increase features. In my opinion, long hours tent-bound provide a legitimate reason to have a small radio. Getting weather forecasts are an even better one. If someone were to make a waterproof headphone-only AM/FM weather-band radio that runs off one AAA battery, they will be immediately inducted into the lightweight backpacking hall of fame. I’m waiting.
Stuff that Doesn’t Take Batteries
Mono / Binoculars
There are a lot of good reasons to take a monocular or binocular hiking. Route-finding, sightseeing, astronomy, birding and other wildlife, trout stalking, even butterflies. The range available is huge in both cost and weight. The lightest binoculars I know of are 4 ounces, several monoculars are even less, some as little as two. Two important considerations are optical quality and water and shock resistance. It’s a sad fact that the weight goes up along with quality and ruggedness. For the minimalist, a watertight monocular is the closest to lightweight nirvana while retaining good optics. The downside is that you lose the 3-D effect of stereo vision that binoculars offer. There are more quality makers than you can shake your hiking pole at, and even more economical brands than that. In no particular order: Steiner, Celestron, Meade, Nikon, Leica, Swarovski, Canon, Minolta, Zeiss, Pentax, Orion, Bushnell all make worthy glass (although not every model from certain brands is worth carrying). Do yourself a favor and avoid poorly made optics, they’ll never leave your pack—the worst kind of weight to carry.
I’ll lump books into two categories – reading and reference. If you can stomach bibliological violence, you can rip a hunk of pages out of the section of the book you’d like to read as one way to save weight (a great idea for garage sale novels). If you’re holed up in the tent during a lengthy storm, it’s considered good mountain manners to rip your reading book into sections and share it with your tentmates.
Field guides of many kinds are a temptation to lug – some are even made small and light with the hiker in mind. Check your outdoor outfitters and naturalist stores for ideas. I sometimes photocopy sections of much-used books (including guidebooks) at 50 percent reduction, giving me tiny quarter-of-original sized versions to keep in the pack. You may only be able to read the tiny type if you have 20-year old eyes, however.
Special gear symbiosis note: a shade tree, a lightweight chair kit for your sleeping pad, and a book on a layover day is a hard-to-beat gadget combination.
It’s a toy, it’s a dinner plate; it’s a dog dish; it’s a snow scoop; it’s a raft paddle; it’s a stove base; it’s a Frisbee! Get the glow-in-the-dark one for leg-breaking good nighttime fun. For the lightweight and low-volume pack, check out nylon fabric versions.
Cards and board games are available in miniaturized versions. I have a tiny magnetic backgammon set that weighs less than two ounces. I’ve seen game boards imprinted on bandanas. Warning: don’t use your bandana for its intended purpose if you’re going to share it later for a game of checkers with your hiking partner. I’m still waiting for someone to drill a cribbage board pattern into a hiker’s trowel.
Journal & Pen / Pencil
Some folks keep journals. You can do that in a book or on a PDA. Science field books are made of waterproof paper and are fairly small and light. Lighter still are a few sheets of paper in a baggie. Certain pens refuse to write in the cold and wet, others explode with inky blobs at altitude. Choose wisely (there’s a shorty “SpacePen” that seems to be a good option). Pencils remain a nice low-tech option and can be resharpened with your pocketknife.
Covered in passing in the previous section on essentials, multi-tools have multi-plied to the point that there are now hundreds to choose from. Ninety-eight percent of them are too heavy to consider lugging on a backpacking trip. Leatherman, Buck and others make tiny versions that have some truly useful features. Your biggest decision is whether you want one designed around scissors or pliers, as the blades are always secondary considerations in the designs. My vote is for scissors, but there may be times when pliers could be a godsend (particularly in the area of gear repair).
Underappreciated as a backcountry gizmo is a star chart. This can be the wheel type that is good for all seasons and times of day or simply the correct page from a guidebook or magazine. As a city dweller I only see real night skies when I’m in the mountains, and I get true pleasure from knowing a little about what I’m watching. The chart is a perfect companion to binoculars. On a clear night you can make out a number of the Messier objects, and the moon and planets become your personal playground. Make sure your chart is matched to your latitude (and hemisphere, for that matter). I have one (a Phillips) that weighs less than an ounce.
If you’re toting electrical gadgetry you need to feed it – that means you have to carry batteries. If you’re going for any length of time, you’ll also have to carry extras. Lithium equivalents are available for AAs, but not yet for AAAs. Most contemporary cameras take one or two specialty power cells that can’t do double duty in other devices (like your flashlight). The diligent backpacker selects all their gadgets around a single battery size to allow interchangeability. Best of luck if you’re carrying several kinds of gadgets at once.
Recharging in the field is possible and occasionally done. Small photocell rechargers are available for AAs and AAAs, and are probably worth a look for the long-term hiker out for several weeks without access to resupply parcels, especially in the sunny Western U.S. and Canada. NiCad batteries don’t store a charge very long, so aren’t a good choice if you can’t recharge in the field. NiMH and Li-Ion batteries fare better, which is why they’ve become more prevalent in electronic devices.
|Part 9: Ultra-Light, Ultra-Cheap|
by David J. Schultz
When shopping, it is relatively easy to get high quality goods if you throw lots of dollars at the purchase. You want a great bottle of wine, a fabulous car, or a superb suit, just tell the nice salesman that “money is no object”. He’ll fix you right up. But getting what you need on the cheap, well that is another thing entirely. Getting what you need without a lot of cash can take time, research, experience, and luck – unless you have some friendly advice to point you in the right direction. Well my hiking friend, let me show you the way…
Before We Get Started…
For about three hundred dollars you can outfit yourself with all the gear you need to have a great trail hike in moderate weather and keep that gear weight at about 15 lbs. If you spend a bit more, you can extend your hiking season and shed a few more pounds off of your pack. In general, if you spend more, you will get some combination of lighter weight, higher quality, more flexibility, and greater utility in your gear. While I have hiked many hundreds of miles with the same gear that I am about to tell you about, my current hiking “kit” is considerably more expensive. It does however, allow me to hike in a much wider range of conditions. Also, for gear heads like me, buying new and interesting gear is, in and of itself, a hobby.
I spent a few hours on the internet and cruised a few hiking retailers to find most of the gear in this article. The rest of the items you will have at home or can easily get at local stores such as Walmart, Target, Sportsmart, etc. Be sure to check the clearance section of the web sites you cruise – this is where many of the best bargains can be found. While I mention brand and store names for many items, you could certainly do well with other manufacturers and obtain gear through many other sources. I am not affiliated with any of the manufacturers or retailers mentioned here.
Since you are probably new to ultralight hiking, I’m going to assume that you will be hiking on established trails for two or three day trips in moderate weather. That is, you are not going to start out by bushwhacking, cross country in the snow. Remember: When hiking ultralight you must match your gear and your experience to the worst conditions that you expect to encounter.
What To Get and How To Get It Cheap
The good news is that even some of the cheapest packs are excellent and there is a huge selection of packs available at local sporting goods stores and on the web. The bad news is that sometimes you do not know whether a pack really feels good until you spend several hours in it. Remember: Wear the pack for a few hours around the house and treat it gently until you decide if you like it. Make sure that you understand the return policies of your retailer. Brands like Camp Trails, Kelty, Rokk, Jansport, and many others can be found for under $70 dollars. With a little minor surgery (cutting off excess or unneeded straps, removing frame stays , etc.) 2.5 to 3 pound weights for 3000+ cubic inch packs are often achieved. For those of you that really want the very lightest weight pack available anywhere, try the GVP4 or the Golite Breeze. The GVP4 is a 13 oz, 4500+ cubic inch pack, with a hip belt. If you like the way that it carries, it is a great way to shed a few pounds. I often use my GVP4 for winter hikes. The Breeze is only 12 oz but lacks a waist belt.
Unlike packs, with sleeping bags you really do get what you pay for. At any given temperature rating, as sleeping bag weight goes down, price goes up dramatically. While $40 will get you a sleeping bag that will be comfortable in 20 degree weather, this bag will likely weigh in at around 6 lbs. On the other end of the spectrum, a 20 degree bag from a quality manufacturer like Nunatak or Western Mountaineering will cost over $300, but weigh around 2 lbs. Since cheap is the word of the day, I will let you in on one of the few exceptions to the weight versus cost rule…down bags sold under the Campmor brand name. Now these bags are not ultra-conservative in their temperature ratings, nor do they have a lot of frills, but I don’t know of anywhere else where you can get a 20 degree, sub 2.5 pound down bag for under $110 dollars. Other cheap, light bags are made by companies such as Kelty, Coleman (Peak 1), and Ferrino. Remember: The temperature ratings claimed by manufacturers are mostly optimistic – what really matters is the inches of loft in the bag above your body.
For going ultralight on the cheap, this is a relatively easy choice. Local retailers will sell generic blue foam pads for well under $10. Or, if you want a much more comfortable pad, High Country Outdoor Products makes an excellent pad called the Mt Washington ($20). The popular Z-Rest pad by Cascade Designs is also a good choice, but it seems to loose its “cushion” with relatively little use. Regardless of which foam pad you buy, you should consider cutting it down in size to reduce weight and bulk. When you do this, cut off small amounts in stages so as to not cut off too much.
For most ultra lighters, the main question in shelters is “Tent or Tarp?”. Tarps are generally lighter and cheaper, but harder to set up and may not be as weather or bug proof as tents. Cheap tarps are available locally at hardware stores or online for under $35 dollars. The lightest tarps are made of silicone-coated nylon and can still be had for about a dollar per square foot from many online sources. Very nice custom tarps can be ordered from Moonbow and Oware at about the same price as most off-the-shelf tarps. If you are like me and really hate bugs and other creepy crawly things, you will need to get some netting to keep the critters off while you are under the tarp. Remember: Tarps require skill to set up under good conditions and can be downright difficult during a windy storm. Practice, practice practice.
Cheap tents are easily found at local discount and sporting goods stores under brand names such as TexSport, Wenzel and Coleman (Peak 1). These tents usually sell for $30 to $90 and weigh from 3 to 4.5 pounds. While these tents are not fancy and add 2 or 3 pounds over the weight of a tarp, they require no skill to set up and are reasonably weather proof. For what it is worth, in a survey of over 100 through hikers who completed the AT, there really was very little difference in satisfaction ratings between expensive tents and really cheap ones. I have spent many a rainy night under a Texsport Hike ‘n Bike that I bought several years ago for around twenty dollars. Remember: It is an absolute must that you seal the seams of your tent fly and all tarp seams if you want to stay dry.
Stoves are generally classified by what type of fuel they burn. There are four types of stoves that are widely used by ultralight hikers at this time: white gas, solid fuel, alcohol, and pressurized gas (canister). I won’t discuss white gas stoves here as I consider them too heavy and too expensive for short trips in moderate weather.
The table below compares the remaining three types of lightweight stoves.
ease of use
simple with practice
depends on fuel tablet quality and wind
no-brainer, especially with piezo ignition
do-it-yourself in less than an hour and $10
available on the Internet and sporting goods stores for about $10
MSR and Peak 1 both make models under $35
tie: SOLID FUEL, ALCOHOL
alcohol can be purchased in hardware stores, auto supply stores, and grocery stores; cost is 5-10 cents per ounce
fuel can be hard to find locally but ordered off the Internet; quality is variable; cost is 15-50 cents per tablet
canisters are available in most sporting goods stores; cost is 50-60 cents per ounce of fuel
heat output and efficiency
boils 2 cups of water in 5-11 minutes on 1-2 ounces of fuel
boils 2 cups of water in 8-13 minutes with 1-2 one-ounce tablets
boils 2 cups of water in 2.5-4.0 minutes using 0.2-0.3 ounces of fuel
cookpot residue after flame exposure
package weight (stove, fuel container, fuel)
3-6 oz + fuel
2-3 ounces + fuel
2.5-5.0 ounces (stove weight) + 3.5 – 5.0 ounces (canister weight)
SOLID FUEL & ALCOHOL have the edge on short trips, CANISTER STOVES or more efficient over the long haul
For me, alcohol is a clear ultra-cheap winner because of its light weight, reasonable boil times, ease of finding fuel, and low “mess” factor. I feel that the best of the alcohol stoves is a design called the Photon Stove (named after the trail name of its inventor, Don “Photon” Johnston). Also check out “Wings stove archive” on the Internet (Google it) which provides instructions and links to many different types of home made alcohol stoves. You should carry your alcohol in any small plastic bottle that does not leak. I use a 4 oz shampoo container for short trips.
Water Treatment and Storage
The most common type of water purification systems found at outdoor gear stores usually are expensive pumps that weigh at least ¾ of a pound. In the past, you really had few other choices: use chemicals to kill the nasties in the water, boil the water, or drink it without treatment and take your chances. Recently however, a lightweight alternative has been developed by a company called SafeWater Anywhere. They have a small lightweight filter that can be used in the construction of a gravity fed water filtering system. This company sells the filters both alone and in a complete filtering system. If you make your own system, you can save a few ounces and a few dollars. I have used this filter for many hundreds of gallons of water over the last two years and am thoroughly impressed with its performance.
If you want the lightest possible solution to making your drinking water safe, chemicals are the answer. These are available online and in local stores under names such as Polar Pure, Aquamira, and Portable Aqua. They all seem to work and are available for between 4 and 10 dollars depending upon the brand. Remember: You must follow the directions on these chemical products to the letter, or you may not kill the nasties. This is especially true if the water is cloudy or cold. The lightest options for water storage are water bladders (widely available at sporting goods stores for about $5) or empty plastic soda containers (free). I have used both with excellent results.
Many hikers tend to take far too much cooking equipment when all that is really needed is a small pot, a bowl, a cup, and a spoon. The best, cheap, light pots that I have found are the small Mirro brand aluminum sauce pans (with the handle removed) or the aluminum “Grease Pot” carried at Walmart. You can easily drill small holes in each of these pots to attach a wire bail handle. The total weight of each of these pots is about four oz. And they cost about $6 each.
Most supermarkets now carry reusable/disposable plastic containers that are tough, cheap and ultralight. These containers make a great cup and bowl. My favorites are the Ziploc brand of round, 20 oz containers which are about 75 cents each and weigh in at less than one ounce with lid. As an added bonus, when these containers are nested inside each other they make a fine insulated cup/bowl. As for utensils, a disposable plastic spoon will work, but can break easily. I can tell you from experience that eating hot beef stroganoff without the benefit of a spoon is no fun at all. Personally, I find it worth the $2 to go with a tough Lexan spoon.
All that is needed for most hiking trips is a small light that use 2 AA dry cell batteries. While a small pen light can be purchased for as little as 3$, I find that a light that can be worn as a headlamp is far superior. Cheap 2 x AA headlamps can be found at local stores or on the web for $7 and weigh 4.5 ounces. However, they eat batteries fairly quickly and have bulbs that burn out with regularity. This means that you must buy and carry extra bulbs and batteries. Small LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights weigh less, have no bulbs to burn out and can have 10 or more times the battery life. While these lights cost more, they may be cheaper to operate in the long run. Small LED lights, such as the Photon, Princeton, and Pocket Bright (my favorite) brands provide enough lite for camp chores at night, but not quite enough for any serious hiking. They cost from $7 – $20 and weigh under ½ ounce. LED headlamps, such as the Petzel Tikka may be used for serious hiking on trails and start at $35 in price and under 3 ounces in weight including batteries.
The venerable “Swiss Army Classic” knife with a small blade, nail file/screwdriver, scissors, toothpick, and tweezers weighs 1 oz. and be purchased for $12. This knife packs a lot of utility into a very small and inexpensive package. Make sure you do not get a poorly made copy, however. The few extra dollars that you pay for the Victorinox or Wenger brand names are dollars well spent. These are easy to loose so I thread a bright orange necklace length loop through mine to make it easier to spot.
For most purposes, disposable lighters and matches work just fine. I have seen disposable lighters as low as 4 for a dollar. Remember: Always carry a spare lighter and matches in a watertight container.
I carry lawn and garden size black plastic bags and three, one gallon size freezer Ziploc bags. The big bags can be used as pack covers, ground cloths, emergency rain gear, etc. The freezer bags can be used to carry out trash, as emergency water containers, to hold water for washing, etc. Roll up and secure them with a few rubber bands. The rubber bands often come in handy too.
First Aid/Emergency Kit and Grooming
I have lumped these together because most of these items can be found around your home with the exception of a whistle ($2, 1 oz) and a signal mirror ($7, 1 oz). Each is available locally or on the web. Generally, I would try to stay away from prepackaged first aid kits as they tend to be expensive and inadequately supplied.
This is one of those areas in which you can save a huge amount of money. While the highest quality outdoor clothing still costs an arm and a leg, you can do just fine for a lot less money. High tech Fibers, such as CoolMax, that were only available in expensive name brands a few years ago are now common in the discount houses. Also, the fleece that is now available from discount stores is far superior to what was available just a few years ago at these stores. Almost all of my fleece clothing has come from Target. It has kept me warm and has held up well to repeated hard use. I have picked up most of my nylon cargo shorts and many CoolMax socks at Target as well.
The only really specialized pieces of clothing that I carry are my Frogg Toggs rain gear. This is ultralight, marvelously breathable and, compared to most of its competitors, ultra cheap ($65 and 15 oz. for the complete suit). Besides use as rain wear, I find that I wear my Toggs almost every night around camp as it gets chilly. I also wear them as a wind shell when I hike. While Frogg Toggs are very versatile, they are not ideal for bushwhacking. Frogg Toggs are durable enough for use on trails, but not on rough, off trail terrain. They would soon be shredded in the brush. If all that you expect are light to moderate showers, an inexpensive poncho such as the $40 silnylon version made by Equinox might suit your needs. Ponchos double very nicely as ground cloths.
A Few Sample Gear Lists
In the sample gear lists that follow, I have omitted prices for items that I assume would be either free or readily available around the average home. I have also not included clothing that is worn while hiking in the total pack weight.
Presented are three lists encompassing different options across the cost spectrum: lowest cost, lower cost, and low cost. As might be expected, higher cost results in lower weight as you buy into more advanced ultralight technologies.
(individual item weights in
ultralight nylon frameless pack
lightweight internal frame pack
ultralight silicone-coated nylon tarp and bug net
lightweight polyurethane-coated nylon tarp
discount store tent
600-fill down mummy bag, 20 deg
600-fill down mummy bag, 45 deg
eggshell-type closed cell foam pad
flat closed cell foam pad
solid fuel tablet stove
home made soda can alcohol stove
inline gravity filter system
chemical treatment (e.g., iodine
1L soda bottle x 2
2 liter flexible plastic water bladder
1L aluminum discount store pot
2 x Ziploc bowls
disposable plastic spoon
1-LED push-button light
incandescent 1xAA flashlight
Swiss Army-type knife (discount brand)
2 x lawn & leaf plastic trash bags
3 x 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bags
PERSONAL CARE ITEMS
DEET-based insect repellent
toothbrush & baking powder
alcohol gel hand sanitizer
FIRST AND EMERGENCY GEAR
first aid kit (tape, gauze, moleskin, bandaids,
spare flashlight batteries (if needed)
2 extra pair socks
fleece cap and gloves
cotton tee shirt and shorts (worn), OR
synthetic tee shirt and shorts (worn)
insulated jacket (down or synthetic)
200 weight fleece jacket
100 weight fleece pants
100 weight fleece top
ultralight polypropylene laminate
lightweight polyurethane-coated nylon poncho
TOTAL (weight in pounds)