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Some Super-Ultralight Backpacking Techniques

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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 weight.

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 season.

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:

Wilderness Survival Guide

Wilderness Survival Tips

Staying Warm

Edible Wild Plants



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