Ultralight Camping : A State of Mind

by Christian

Trangia SetEver since I returned from a spectacular failure in Sweden, I have been working on my gear choices and reducing my overall pack weight.

What went wrong in Sweden? I made a few rookie mistakes a lot of people do when they start out backpacking.

I bought the wrong rucksack. It was heavy and didn’t carry well.

I had an oversized cooking kit. Anyone using the full Trangia set with 2 sauce pans and the frying pan, too? Look at the picture, I even brought the kettle for crying out loud.

My sleeping bag was a synthetic filled bulky affair.

Overall, my pack was just too darn heavy. With water and fuel, I topped out at over 20 Kilos.

While still at home, the pack already felt pretty heavy at 17kg or so. I didn’t know it any better and thought it should be bearable, although I was already a bit worried.

Arriving in Sweden, I was thrilled to finally do my first solo backpacking trip and everything was great–except the pack was killing me.

I wasn’t making the mileage per day I had planned, consequently not arriving at the places near water sources for the night that I had looked up, and so forth. Then on the 3rd day, I developed two serious blisters on each foot which forced me to stop on day 4. For days 5-7 I checked into a hotel back in Stockholm.

Losing weight

Now my base weight (everything in the pack except consumables) has dropped below the magical 5 Kilo mark. In fact, the base weight on my last overnighter was around 4 Kilo, with a bit on top for food and water.

The Gossamer Gear Murmur pack in his natural habitat:
Gossamer Gear Ultralight Pack

I can assure you, this way of travel is much more fun than with a big heavy pack.

After Sweden I joined Backpackinglight.com and bit by bit I changed parts of my gear.

What did I change? I switched to a down bag for starters. That’s a bit pricy but the weight and bulk savings make it quite worthwhile. And I bought a GoLite Jam pack. Not the lightest or the best, but reasonable light. Then I replaced the hiking boots with comfortable trail runners.

These changes alone didn’t really lighten my load in a substantial way, though. Maybe 2-3 Kilos less, not much more. Frankly, gear alone won’t solve the problem. It really is combination of skill, mindset and wise gear choices.

You want to know the number one way to save weight?

The best and easiest way to save weight, is to leave it at home. There, that’s the trick.

Instead of bringing the full 1100 grams Trangia set on a solo trip, I know bring a cottage fabricated meths stove. It’s very efficient and weighs 200 grams including the pot, windscreen and my little titanium spork. I don’t have a cup, I will prepare my coffee in the cooking pot. Works fine and it’s the least expensive stove in my collection.

Instead of bringing a full tent, I am using only the fly of my Laser Competition tent. The Laser Comp already is pretty damn light tent at 1Kilo. But if I leave the inner at home, our dog fits in it with me and the weight is just 650 grams. Again, I didn’t buy a lightweight tarp, I am just leaving something (the inner) at home.

Of course, I am tempted to get a lightweight tarp, the Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter to be exact, but what I have, works.

Yesterday, I added another quality item with a great name to my kit: a Micro-Light Photon III Freedom. I have been to Sweden twice and not once did I use the headlamp, I had packed. The sun hardly goes down in that country during summer.

On short local overnighters, I generally don’t hike at night and just need a bit of light before I go to bed. The Photon set me back €15,- and weighs 12 gram.

Again, you can leave a lot of money on the table if you just look at the gear side of things – and you should if that’s what you enjoy and you can afford it. But honestly, the only way to reach the UL definition of 5 Kilos and lower, is by leaving stuff at home.

If it falls to the ground, it weighs something

Look through each and every item in your pack and ask yourself, if you really need it out on the trail. If yes, might there be a lighter substitute for that? You can tell from looking at my packing list, that I bring very few items. Still, I am warm and dry at night, can cook my food and have a great shelter with me. In case you are wondering, the items I carry on my body are not listed on that list. I carry my mobile phone (which is also my camera) in my pockets, and depending on the temperatures and weather the clothing will be adjusted accordingly.

Nothing on that list is really that extreme, or hardcore ultralight, pretty mainstream stuff actually. Everybody can do it. It just takes a mental adjustment to only bring the essential items and leave everything else behind, especially the “Just-in-Case-Items”. “Just-in-Case-Items” used to be a big factor in my pack weight before.

Just in case and razor blades

Those “Just-in-Case-Items” is one topic among many great tips in Mike Clelland!’s new Book: Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping.

Why do we all need a knife, while out backpacking he asks. His advice is to just bring a razor blade in a paper envelope. I own a Leatherman knife, bring it all the time. The weight is whopping 140 grams. I use it to open the food packaging on a trip. Rarely to cut through a bit of cord.

From now on, I will just put a tiny 1 gram razor blade in my first aid kit. That’s the kind of thinking necessary to lighten your load. Mike’s book is a gem, full of good advice and amusing little cartoons. I highly recommend it, if you like reading things like that.

The benefits of going light are astounding. It takes the effort out of everything. Packing is easier and less worrisome, getting to the trail head by train or buses is much easier. Stopping for a snack at a busy local restaurant along the way? Totally doable with a tiny light pack.

Traditional campers often stress that safety is the main reason they pack what they pack, implying that the ultralight campers are not safe, or risk more, or can’t really go outdoors aside from maintained trails and resupply points. Nothing about 20 Kilos on your back increases your safety. But it increases your risk of tripping and breaking an ankle. What if you’re on a ridge and the weather changes? With a light pack you can get off that ridge as fast as possible.

How about you? I’d be interested to know about your tips and tricks to go lighter. What’s your base weight and do you have any gear choices on the wish list that truly add or better put, subtract from your bottom line?

  • http://www.facebook.com/martin.free Martin Free

    Umbrella?! ;)

    • Anonymous

      You won’t get the breathability an umbrella offers with any eVent or
      Gore-Tex jacket… :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/martin.free Martin Free

        You need the matching bowler hat too then… ;)

  • http://www.beuteltiere.org Basti Beuteltiere

    Hej Chris,
    Thanks for mentioning me in your great post! It’s been indeed a funtrip! And your choice of gear influenced mine too!
    For solo trips I’m now using a way lighter bivvy combined with a smaler tarp vs. the larger one I used to carry before!

    And of course: the umbrella is a reliable companion! ;-)
    (my wife got a matching bowler, too!)

    • Anonymous

      Hehe, knowing you, you’re probably just taking a bivvy bag AND the Umbrella. Nothing else. Am I right? :)

      • http://www.beuteltiere.org Basti Beuteltiere

        Well… It depends on the trip! ;-)
        (But normally I prefer the luxury of a tarp! Even if it’s quite small…)

      • http://www.beuteltiere.org Basti Beuteltiere

        Well… It depends on the trip! ;-)
        (But normally I prefer the luxury of a tarp! Even if it’s quite small…)

  • markswalkingblog

    Chris, really interesting post.  I will study this and see if it can help me !

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Mark! Would be interested to hear your opinion about it.

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