10 Tips to Go Ultralight

Boost comfort and miles with these field-proven tips for carrying less.
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Boost comfort and miles with these field-proven tips for carrying less.
ultralight cheat sheet warning illo

See rule 3.

The weight-loss expert

Mike Clelland not only wrote the book on slashing pack pounds, he also illustrated it: His Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips ($15; falcon.com) draws on nearly a decade of practice hauling a pack with a sub-10-pound base weight. Here, the former NOLS instructor offers his top tips for how you, too, can venture into the backcountry with a bag light enough to lift with one finger.

1

Weight is everything
Buy a 5-pound-capacity postal scale and write down the weight of every single item you plan to pack. When deciding between similar things, always choose the lighter one.
“Let the scale make all the decisions.”

2

Eat more Fritos
When planning meals and snacks, target foods that pack about 125 calories per ounce—or more.

  • olive oil ~ 248
  • peanut butter ~ 165
  • Cashews ~ 155
  • Dark Chocolate ~ 153
  • Shortbread cookies ~ 150
  • Gorp ~ 130
  • triscuit crackers ~ 120
  • cheddar cheese ~ 113

calories per ounce

3

Just In Case
Don’t give in to doomsday scenarios. Only pack for the worst conditions you’re likely to face. “The easiest way to get the weight down is to leave stuff behind.”

4

Select campsites carefully
Look for level sleeping spots, ideally with a slight depression for your butt; clear debris and lie down to test comfort. Avoid dips in the terrain, where cold air pools overnight, and seek dense trees for added shelter and insulation.

5

Leave the TP at home
No toilet, no paper. In a quarter century in the field, Clelland has never brought along this so-called essential. His top picks for all-natural bum-wiping materials:

  • Snow: Squeeze a handful of the stuff into an oblong ball.
  • River rocks: Gather smooth, egg-shaped stones.
  • Fuzzy leaves: Find mullein, a weed common to sunny, disturbed areas; its soft, strong leaves do the trick.

6

Save ounces—and pennies
Ultralight doesn’t have to mean ultra-expensive. Some gear swaps that will actually save money:

  • Water bottle ➤ Disposable bottle Savings: about 6 oz. and $10.
  • Canister stove ➤ DIY alcohol stove (learn how at backpacker.com/alcoholstove) Savings: about 3 oz. and $37
  • Two-person tent ➤ Tarp Savings: about 2 lbs. and $240 Knife ➤ Single-edge razor Savings: about 4 oz. and $23
  • Pillow ➤ Zip-top bags (7 partly inflated, quart-size, double-zipper bags in a stuffsack) Savings: about .4 oz. and $20

7

Hike all day
When not saddled by a heavy pack, the journey is the destination. Clelland hikes from dawn ’til dusk, with lots of stops for streamside meals, coffee, even naps. Bonus? At camp, you won’t miss the little luxuries you left behind. “I simply lay down and fall right asleep.”

8

Do calisthenics
On chilly nights, Clelland suggests doing jumping jacks immediately before hopping into the sack—raising your body temp right before bed will help you sleep warmer. If you get cold in the night, do a few minutes’ worth of crunches right in your bag.

9

Carry less water
Unless you’re trekking across the desert, pack no more than 1.5 liters and plan your route around water stops, treating as you go with drops of Aquamira ($15 for 2 oz.; rei.com).

10

Keep an open mind
“What you want is very different from what you need,” Clelland says. “It’s all mental. The only challenge that has to be overcome is your own attitude.”