In learning to lighten my pack, I’ve also learned to better manage my finances. That might sound like a strange statement to make – generally speaking, lowering your base pack weight is associated with buying lighter gear. What I’ve learned, though, is to do more with less, and to buy only those things that will make a real difference to my base weight or in terms of practical use. I’ve learned to do more research before making purchases. I’ve learned that sometimes the best approach is to make something yourself – and yet, sometimes it makes more sense to pay someone else for their products. Sometimes it makes the most sense to make a sizable investment, and sometimes making that investment means saving up some money and not having the immediate gratification we seem to enjoy so much.
Pack Lighter, Pack Less
The most dramatic changes in lowering my base pack weight came from taking less stuff. It seems obvious enough… fewer things means less weight, just as fewer expenditures means less debt or less financial (instead of physical) strain. But getting to the point where I could leave things out of my pack meant wrapping my head around the concept of needs versus want. I found myself doing a cost-benefit analysis of the things that traditionally appear on my gear list: "I really like that jacket, but is it worth the extra twelve ounces it adds to my system? I mean, it’s nice to have, but the down vest is plenty warm." I was surprised not only by how little I needed, but by how little I missed once I got rid of it. And frankly, I was surprised by how unencumbered I felt by having fewer, more functional things on my back.
We all have different ideas about how to approach ultralight gear lists: how to budget the ounces and pounds we carry. We each prioritize categories differently. There are some things we’re just not willing or able to do without. If you’re unwilling to compromise or sacrifice in one area, though, you’ll likely have to make adjustments somewhere else to get to your target base weight. Ultralight backpacking, I’d argue, is ultimately about balance – balancing your budget of pounds and ounces.
If you wanted to design a house, at some point you’d have to adjust a sliding scale to reflect your needs and desires. Given a fixed budget, you can have a tiny house with incredible build quality and craftsmanship, or you can have a bigger house with lower-quality finishing. Designing the house means determining what you’re passionate about and what will suit your needs. Designing a low base pack weight requires the same sort of approach.
For example, I’m a side sleeper with a history of back and shoulder problems. There is no way you’ll find me on a thin closed-cell foam pad. I carry a thick self-inflator or a plush insulated air mattress instead. My sleeping pad weighs about two pounds versus the three-ounce micro-pads that some die-hards carry. Because I carry a heavier sleeping pad, I try to compensate for the "extra" weight by cutting weight somewhere else. I’ve been using a nineteen-ounce sleeping bag, for example, and just designed and made a fourteen-ounce sleeping bag. By comparison, many people carry sleeping bags that weigh twenty-eight or so ounces.
Making "Light" Affordable
Perhaps most importantly, ultralight backpacking has led me to take painstaking measurements and considerations for everything in my pack weight budget. I had to relearn, as well as reframe, my concept of "light," much as the process has taught me to re-evaluate my fiscal concept of "affordable." With the economy right now, the timing of my ultralight rebirth couldn’t have been better.
Perhaps the best illustration of my new found philosophy is my examination of the fire-starting items I’ve always packed. Lighters are tiny; they have essentially no mass. Matches are wispy little dried twigs. Having the ability to start fire can be vitally important. So traditionally I’ve carried a lighter in my pocket, one in my stove kit, one in my survival kit, and another one stashed somewhere in the bowels of my pack. I would also have two or three lightweight plastic bottles stuffed with matches and a striker pad. Once I got serious about lowering my base weight I bought a digital scale and started weighing every single item that could end up in my pack. Each lighter, I found, weighed about 0.75 ounces – next to nothing! Each filled match safe weighed only about an ounce. Again, the weight seems inconsequential. But then, I tallied up the total weight of my firestarters: four lighters at 0.75 ounce equalled 3 ounces. Three match safes at an ounce each weighed 3 ounces. I had 6 ounces of firestarting stuff in my pack – over a third of a pound! I grimaced at the thought of the flint and steel still stashed in my possibles bag.
Discovering that I had about half a pound (once I added the flint and steel) of firestarting stuff in my pack was… profound. It was a moment of clarity that has stayed with me. It led to a paradigm shift in my worldview: even teeny tiny things add up to be very significant.
Since then, I’ve become a bit obsessed about weight. I know how much most of my gear (and much of the gear I’ve considered buying) weighs to the tenth, if not hundredth, of an ounce. Not because I want the absolute lowest possible pack weight, but because I want the lowest possible pack weight that keeps me happy. I now take just enough clothing to keep me warm, dry, and comfy without having a number of extra layering options. I no longer have enough spare clothing to make a decent pillow, so I’m playing with the most flexible options to add a few usable ounces to the pack. (I have a down pillow that weighs 4.5 ounces; when I realized that the 3.5 ounces of down in it was the same amount of down insulating my vest, I ditched the pillow as a possibility. I just made a Climashield vest that weighs 3 ounces total; it should be just enough for my new "pillow," too.
The rest of my life has come under closer inspection since I started thinking about my gear list in a more cognizant way. Money started to make more sense to me, became more tangible. The scale of my life came into better focus. In the grander scheme of things, five bucks for a sandwich at lunch isn’t much. And the buck and a quarter for my once or twice daily coffee refill isn’t significant – barely registers on the financial scale. And my afternoon snack of a buck or two is really pretty cheap. And if I spend another buck or two on a drink later in the day, well, it’s only a buck or two… right? My new-found ultralight perspective helped me realize that, hey, in my life, those inconsequential food purchases added up to ten or twelve dollars every day. Working four days a week, I was realistically spending about fifty dollars each week, two hundred dollars a month, two thousand four hundred dollars a year on "cheap" filler food.
If I were making $100,000 a year, maybe two hundred dollars a month wouldn’t be all that much. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that I don’t earn that kind of money. I have been living on the wrong scale. I hadn’t been living in reality. I hadn’t been paying attention to how quickly all those little things add up and was nickel and diming my budget to pieces. I’ve learned to live with a scale more appropriate to my budget – and last month, I had an extra hundred and twenty dollars in the bank and two pounds less in my pack.