Some Super-Ultralight Backpacking Techniques
By Steve Gillman
Here are some relatively extreme ultralight backpacking techniques
used by myself and others. I welcome any suggestions for additions
to this page. Contact me using the email address on the contact
page. I would like to include anything that can reduce weight
or increase comfort without adding weight. The following
are not meant as absolute recommendations, however. I just want
to let backpackers know what has worked for myself and others.
Knowledge Reduces Weight
First of all, knowledge can be traded for weight. If you learn
certain backpacking techniques, you can carry a lighter sleeping
bag, less clothing, and even less food. Wilderness survival knowledge,
for example, can help you not only reduce weight, but also let
you travel the wilds more safely.
Learn how to make a mattress out of leaves, pine needles,
dead grass or bracken ferns, and you can leave behind the sleeping
pad. Using this technique, I have slept with no pad, and only
a five-ounce sleeping bag liner, when it was near freezing. It
took about fifteen minutes to collect enough bracken ferns to
make a two-foot thick mattress. Yes, this could damage the environment
in some areas, but if you use common sense, collect only
dead grass, leaves or whatever, and scatter them in the morning,
it shouldn't be a problem.
If you learn which berries are edible, you can eat as you
hike and bring less food. I have eaten half of my calorie needs
in the form of berries on some days in the wilderness. During
a hike to Grinnel Glacier in Glacier National Park, in August,
my wife and I ate at least nine types of wild berries. Researching
the local climate and timing your trips well can help you reduce
You can leave the rainwear home (except for a 2-ounce emergency
poncho) if you are in the eastern Sierra Nevadas in September,
for example. And you can just about leave the sleeping bag behind
on summer trips in some parts. I like to plan a trip to coincide
with the full moon, because I enjoy getting up at four in the
morning and hiking by moonlight. The added benefit is that I
am up and moving at the coldest time of the night, so I can get
by with a lighter bag.
Money Reduces Weight
Money can be traded for weight, of course. This is one of
the surest weight-reducing techniques. Money will get you the
lightest gear, and the expensive backpacking gear is generally
of very high quality also. I didn't like paying over $200 for
my sleeping bag, but I've never yet been cold in it, and it weighs
just 17 ounces.
When selecting gear, the key is to concentrate first on the
the larger items. A sawed-off toothbrush might save you 1/4 ounce,
but a lighter shelter can save you pounds. Consider the small
things last. Find dual-purpose items. A poncho that can double
as a shelter, for example. If you can drink soup and tea from
your pan, why bring a bowl or cup?
Leaving Things Reduces Weight
Leave things behind. Now we're into the tough ultralight backpacking
techniques for some of you. Ask for every item; Can I get by
without it? No stove is necessary if you bring only ready-to-eat
food. You don't need a change of shirt or pants on a trip of
three days. You don't need to bring a computer if you can use
your smartphone. You get the idea. But be sure you'll be happy
as a minimalist.
I like to eat a big meal before I leave on a trip, but I'm
not sure if that reduces weight, since I'm carrying the weight
inside in any case. I do however, bring less food when it's berry
Putting Ultralight Backpacking Techniques to the Test
There is a stretch of beach on the northern shore of Lake
Michigan, at the end of the Stonington Peninsula, that is always
empty. It is part of the Hiawatha National Forest, but because
it is framed on either side by private property, there is no
easy access to it. It is legal to walk along the beach, however,
past the last cabin, to reach the public land. Then you have
about six or seven miles of beach and woods before you reach
the next cabin.
I hiked just a few miles the first day, and set up camp behind
a small ridge on the beach. I gathered dry grass along the edge
of the forest, and made a nice mattress under my backpacking
tarp. The tarp was pitched fairly high, so the breeze would keep
out the mosquitoes. Fortunately, this worked well. Once camp
was set, I went for a swim.
This area has a large population of crayfish, which look just
like miniature lobsters, and taste the same. I caught a dozen
under the rocks in shallow water, and carried them back to camp
in a whipped-cream container that had washed up (you never know
what you'll find on a beach). I boiled them in my cheap three-ounce
pan, along with some evening primrose roots, and cattail hearts.
It made a good meal with the crackers I brought. (You have to
remove the meat from the tail of the crayfish, after cooking.)
Because it was summer, I hadn't brought a sleeping bag. My
seventeen-ounce bag wouldn't have added much to my total pack
weight of eight or nine pounds, but I wanted to try using just
a nylon sleeping bag liner I had recently sewn (5 ounces). I
wore all my clothes to bed, including a hat that I made from
the sleeve of an old thermal shirt (1 ounce). I slept well, and
ate a few granola bars for breakfast.
There was water all around, so I had only brought a 16-ounce
plastic pop bottle (1 ounce) and a few iodine tablets for purification.
I had a good drink before I packed up.
There were fresh bear tracks on the beach. The bear had walked
within 60 yards of where I was sleeping. I pulled out my little
freon horn (2 ounces), just in case. I had bought it at Walmart,
after reading that several people have used it's high-decibel
shriek to scare off bears. I followed the tracks for the next
hour, but only because I was going in that direction.
There were two old cabins to be explored, and a patch of blueberries
I knew about, and beach full of all sorts of things to check
out. The oddest thing that regularly washes up is light bulbs,
but not dead ones. I take them home and use them. Only after
years of finding these was the mystery solved. A sailor told
me that they throw them off the big ships to shoot at them in
the water. I was finding the ones they missed.
Another night, and I headed back. The rain that threatened
the last day never came, so I didn't get to test my garbage bag
rain suit (2 ounces), but I had used a similar one with success
before. You can get by with fragile clothing when you are hiking
an open beach. Oh, and I never did see the bear.
For an opinion and some ideas on how much you should carry
when backpacking, visit the page, Lightweight
Backpacking - How Much Should You Carry.
To be safer when you push the limits, add some wilderness
skills to your backpacking techniques. Here are some of
the sixty survival-related pages:
Edible Wild Plants