Addie: Mike, you’ve got a new book out! Can you tell readers who may not be familiar a little bit about yourself?
Mike: Why yes, Addie, that is an excellent question, and I’m glad you asked.
I’ve been juggling the role of outdoor educator and illustrator for the last 17 years, and the two careers end up contributing to each other. Most of my teaching experience is with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and most of my illustration work has been doing instructional cartoons for books and magazines with a focus on camping, skiing, and climbing.
My introduction to lightweight backpacking came in 2005, when I received a phone call from Don Ladigin. He wanted me to do the illustrations for his book LIGHTEN UP! My first reaction was to say “No, thanks,” because I had just finished a series of instructional outdoor books, and they all ended up requiring hundreds of cartoons. I was sort of burned out. But, after talking with Don and reading his manuscript, I realized that this would be a really fun project, and I eagerly took on the job.
It’s actually pretty hard for me to draw things that I’m unfamiliar with, so during the process of drawing the cartoons for Don, I bought a few key pieces of gear and started doing little overnights in my backyard (Grand Teton National Park). I was immediately blown away by the simplicity and freedom of the lightweight techniques. From that very first one-night solo experience, I became a sort of crazed zealot about shaving ounces, which continues to this day.
Up until Don’s phone call, my outdoor pursuits revolved around mountaineering, telemark skiing, and rock climbing. All of those activities require a lot of gear, and I didn’t realize how the big backpack can subtract from the core experience of being outside in the wilderness. The lightweight mindset changed everything, and now that I’m inching up on 50, I’m reveling in the advancements in techniques and gear in way that just can’t happen with a backpack full of traditional equipment.
The last few years have been a reflection of my newfound passion. I took on a leadership role at NOLS and helped create their Lightweight Backpacking program. I’ve done a bunch at BPL, writing and illustrating articles, as well as teaching some of the Wilderness Trekking Courses out of Bozeman. And last summer I even wrote a book on the subject!
The upcoming book is meant to be a more comprehensive follow-up to Don Ladigin’s excellent LIGHTEN UP!
Co-teachers Sam Haraldson and Mike Clelland! Yes, Sam is smiling.
A: Tell us more about the book – how did you come up with the idea?
M: Curiously, the book came about as a direct result of the dire economic events in 2008. In the aftermath, I went through the whole year of 2009 without any illustration work. That’s never happened before, and it was rough. It took me a while to realize that nobody was offering me any work, so I might as well invent my own.
Over the years, I’ve worked on a handful of instructional books as illustrator (each with LOTS of cartoons), and I wasn’t intimidated by stepping into a big job. So I figured I would just write a book rather than wait for the phone to ring.
I’ve worked as illustrator on a series of successful books with Allen O’Bannon. My favorite is titled ALLEN & MIKE’S REALLY COOL TELEMARK TIPS. This was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved with, and readers really seemed to respond to the simple format. The subject matter was presented as a simple series of tips, each one describing (in words and cartoons) some of the subtle skills required to master the elegant telemark turn.
I figured that the skills and techniques required for advanced ultralight backpacking could be listed in a very similar format, just a series of simple tips, each one numbered for ease of use. This makes it easy for the reader to jump from tip to tip, especially if they are looking for specific info.
One thing that I really strive for in the series of instructional books I’ve worked on is to make sure the book is un-intimidating. I really feel that it’s important for any potential reader to hold the book in their hands for the very first time and NOT be daunted by the material. When they initially browse through the pages, I want ‘em to think, “Hey, this looks fun!”
I wrote and drew pretty much the whole thing in just two months, July and August of 2010. I became a sort of hermit with a deadline, and I chained myself to my desk to get it all done on time. That might sound dire, but it was an exciting flurry of creative output. It ended up being a really fun job.
I was very cautious not to overlap too much with the content of the other books out there that cover some of the same skills and techniques. I was inspired by Don Ladigin, Ryan Jordan, and Ray Jardine, but I didn’t want to repeat what they had already shared.
I’m a quirky guy, sure enough, and that ends up in my writing and in my illustrations. Most of the little tips in the book are a reflection of my own idiosyncratic point of view. I worked hard to keep my own voice in the text – the last thing I wanted was something dry and monotone!
A: I think one of the thing readers really appreciate about you is your tone! Since you’ve gotten this book under your belt and off your desk, do you have any exciting adventures planned for the summer, or will you simply be perfecting your one-night-at-a-time trips?
M: I really enjoy the quick little one-night-at-a-time trips, especially with the Tetons just a few minutes out my door. That is such an easy way to get out into the mountains and play with some cool gear. Plus, I get to sleep outside under the stars.
The short over-nighters are a great way to fine-tune my systems. But the real test is to put everything I’ve learned on these short little trips into something a bit more bold. This summer, I wanna do a ten-day trip with an ultralight set-up. I’ve been looking at maps, and I’ll probably try to link up a bunch of trails through the Tetons and Yellowstone, and maybe the Gallatins too. While I was working on the book, I was trying to make sure each of the tips was something that the reader could really use, nothing hypothetical, I was dedicated to real information.
Early on in the book, I describe a “Model Trip,” and I use it as the example outing, a sort of template for all the tips in the book. I feel it’s important that I actually DO this Model Trip myself. It will be set-up as a solo outing, ten days long, ambitious, and in three-season temps.
But, most importantly, it’s an ultralight experience, meaning the base weight is below ten pounds. Ten days is a nice length because you can easily carry ten days’ of food. And it’s also nice because the math is easy: if you do a one-night trip, all the numbers are the same except for the consumables, and you can just move the decimal point over a little bit to the left.
The cover of the book features a cartoon of a guy (who looks suspiciously like me) and there is a call-out box with an arrow pointing to his very cute little backpack. The box reads: “food and gear for 10 DAYS under 25 pounds!” And that’s my goal for the summer.
Me and my baby, hot off the presses.
Now, I just saw a presentation given by Andrew Skurka where he tells the story of his Alaska-Yukon Expedition: 4,680 miles and 176 days of solo-trekking, skiing, and packrafting through some of the most remote terrain on the planet.
That puts a humble little ten-day trip into a sort of stilted perspective.
All that said, I feel like I have a lot of experience camping and teaching with a lightweight backpack, mostly in a team with NOLS and BPL’s Wilderness Trekking School. On those trips we’ve been out for as long as two weeks at a time.
A: Before I let you go, is there anything else you think our readers need to know about you, your new book, lightweight backpacking, or coffee?
M: About the book, there was a genesis to the project that kind of had a life of its own; it took me in a direction I didn’t expect. My initial idea as I began writing was that it would be a string of technical tips, you know, cool little things to do and make. Now rest assured, that there is plenty of that stuff in there, but as things took shape, a more philosophical tone began to emerge, and it eventually sort of took over.
I realized that the most important aspect of ultralight backpacking comes from a mind-set and not from cool gear. The book is a lot more introspective than I would have ever guessed from the outset. For me at least, there is a joy to liberating yourself not only from ounces, but from old ways of thought. I worked hard to encourage the reader to take on the challenge of looking at his or her own mind-set.
My experiences with a very light backpack has made me much more introspective, and this has greatly improved the way I walk in the woods. And this same newfound ease-of-travel has enriched the way I relate to nature.
And about coffee. One of the skills I’ve perfected is stopping in a beautiful spot, sitting down and brewing up a small cup of afternoon coffee. I keep my cook gear ready to go in a dedicated stuff sack, and I can pull out out and light the stove within seconds of pulling the pack off. This is easy and rewarding – and greatly appreciated by my hiking partners.
Editor’s note: We’re as excited about Mike’s new venture as he is, and Backpacking Light has partnered with him to offer a weekly rotation of tips and illustrations from his book. Mike Clelland!’s Tip of the Week begins soon, when his book, Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping , hits the Gear Shop. Stay tuned!