I’ve done some lightening, I want to take it to the next level

So you’ve started the journey. You’ve poked around on the internet, read a couple of books, and have made some changes in your gear. Your Christmas list now consists of gear that you didn’t want to buy for yourself. Initially, it seemed like the weight just melted out of your pack, as you applied the principles of leaving stuff at home, finding multiple use items, taking less stuff, and finding ever-lighter options for the stuff you did take. But now you’ve found yourself at a plateau. You’ve enjoyed some big benefits from lightening up, and inspired some others along the way, but you’re hungry for more. I don’t know what your base pack weight is, but let’s look at a couple of ways you might break through to a lower pack weight:
  • Make the move to a tarp
  • A hard look at clothing
  • Food and water strategies
  • Sleeping pad secrets
  • Changing your hiking schedule
  • Make the move to a tarp

    You may have traded in your heavy tent for a lighter tent, but if your base pack weight is pretty low, even the light tent is still probably a significant portion of your load. If you can jump to a tarp, you’re likely to cut that weight in half! There are a number of advantages to tarps:

    • More flexible Most tarps allow you flexibility in how you set them up. You can set them up high for more headroom. If its windy you can pitch one end to the ground to provide a windbreak. If it’s stormy, you can pitch it low to the ground. In the middle of a rainy day, you can pitch it as a dining or rest fly.
    • Better connection to the outdoors
      If you are used to a tent, sleeping under a tarp the first few times will feel terribly exposed. I know it did for me. You will likely find that eventually your preferences will flip. Now I feel terribly confined within a tent. I like being able to peek out under a tarp and see what’s going on. I like the better connection to the sights and sounds around me. Plus, if I need to get out in a hurry, any direction works from under a tarp!
    • Builds skills
      Generally anyone can set up a tent, once they figure out where to put all the poles in the sleeves. A tarp is a thinking man’s (or woman’s) shelter. Think of the satisfaction you’ll get from arranging the perfect pitch, with varying lengths of line, trekking poles, branches, etc.
    • Like much of ultralight backpacking, as you take less weight, you have to use your brain more. It’ll feel weird at first, but make yourself do it for a few times, and it will get more comfortable. Here are a couple of strategies for tarping:

    • Bug strategies
      OK, if you know you are going to be in an area of heavy bugs, a tarp may not be the best idea for that trip. However, there are some coping mechanisms for dealing with most situations.

      • Dry camp (camp away from water)
      • Camp on windward side of ridges (to catch a breeze to keep bugs at bay, and set your shelter up to grab the breeze)
      • Sleep with your headnet on (wear brimmed hat to keep off face)
      • Take ear plugs so you don’t hear the mosquitos
      • Dose with Tylenol PM so you don’t hear the mosquitos
      • Don’t forget the DEET or equivalent
    • Drainage strategies
      Many people fear if they don’t have a tent with a bathtub floor, they will get wet if it rains. Here again, you need to be smart when using a tarp.

      • Pick your ground carefully (look for gently convex ground that drains away in all directions. Or at least, don’t pick low spots)
      • Where possible think about where rain that falls off your tarp is draining (hopefully not back towards you, that’s the plan)
      • Remember that even with just a groundsheet, some water can flow under/around you. Water does not jump, so in most cases will not get up from the ground onto the top of your groundsheet

    A hard look at clothing

    Most people, in my opinion, take way too many clothes backpacking. Now, if you’re out there filming a video, or trying to snag that perfect backpacking mate, hey, maybe you need a change of outfits. But otherwise, take a hard look at those soft clothes, and consider if some of the following strategies could help you reduce weight. My personal feeling is that if Im not wearing every piece of clothing I have at night, the coldest part of the day, then I brought too much clothing.

    • Driducks
      A Driducks, or similar, rain jacket is an awesome piece of clothing. It is superbly breathable and amazingly waterproof, incredibly light, and its even inexpensive! I use mine for a windshirt, rain jacket, and with my sleeping bag, my puffy jacket. I like to take a size larger than I usually wear, so I have room to layer my sleeping bag under it around camp.
    • Insulation
      If you adjust your hiking style (see adjusting your hiking schedule below), you would be amazed at how little insulation you need. When you’re moving, the body generates an amazing amount of heat. I have hiked for days through snow in just long pants and wet running shoes and kept comfortable. Once you stop, you have about 20 minutes before the wet feet start to get cold, and you either need to get into the sleeping bag, or start moving again. With a size XL Driducks jacket instead of my usual size L, I can drape my sleeping bag around me, under the jacket, and have a puffy jacket around camp without carrying any additional weight.
    • Convertible pants Convertible pants are a great solution that give you the option of natural ventilation during the warm parts of the day, but the option of sun protection, bug protection, brush protection, and, in the cool of the morning or evening, a little extra warmth. Admittedly, a super light pair of running type shorts and a really light pair of long pants could be no heavier, and potentially even a little lighter.
    • Mesh liner/quick dry underwear
      For guys, a pair of shorts or pants with mesh liners provides nice, uh, ventilation, and is lighter than carrying a change of underwear. If your favorite pants don’t come with mesh liners, use a pair of lightweight, washable, nylon briefs like the ones from Ex Officio.
    • Socks
      For years I carried three pairs of running socks: one on my feet, one clean one waiting for switching out, and one that was drying from having been washed. Now, you’ll have to experiment for yourself, but many times I’ve gone with one pair, and either worn them damp after washing, or hike for awhile with no socks at all while they dry. Everyone seems to have their own strategy, and every foot is different. I find generally I’m best off with a thin nylon (Coolmax or similar) pair of socks, low cut to save weight of course.
    • Clean clothes in car
      One nice trick is to stash some clean clothes for the ride home in the car trunk. It makes for a little bit less smelly ride back, and you don’t have to worry so much about how dirty or stinky you get on the trail.
    • Bounce bag in car
      You know the feeling, you want to go as light on clothing as you can, but you’re not sure about the weather. You’ve been watching the forecast for the projected temperatures, but there’s no substitute for being at the trailhead. So instead of make your call at home, take a couple of options in a bounce bag in the trunk. That way, if it looks warmer or colder than you thought, you have options for your final packing. This can save you from putting extra weight in when packing at home, due to the uncertainty over actual conditions. Weighing packs at the trailhead will keep you honest and prevent you from throwing in clothing ‘just in case’ at the last minute.
    • Lightest clothes
      Beside not taking too many items of clothing, you for sure want to take the lightest items you can find. We’ve already mentioned the Driducks. For warm hats and gloves, check out Possumdown. There are a growing number of superlight down insulation pieces from Montbell, Patagonia and others that could help you shave a few ounces.

    Food and water strategies

    When you start to get the weight of your gear down, you begin to reach the point pretty quickly where the heaviest part of the load is food and water. Obviously adequate food and water is important, but since they are both heavy items, you don’t want to take any more than necessary. There’s nothing worse than coming back from a trip with a couple of pounds of food you didn’t eat, knowing that you carried those pounds for every step of the trip! So how can you safely minimize your food and water weight?

    • Calories per ounce
      Make the food you carry count. I never take food having less than 100 calories per ounce, and am always looking for ways to goose the caloric content of meals. Minimus.biz and Packit Gourmet sell individual packets of olive oil and gravy that are great for stirring into meals to give them extra staying power.
    • Make it good
      The food has to taste good so you eat it, otherwise it doesn’t do you any good at all. Collect recipes from friends, online, or magazines. Trailcooking.com and OnePanWonders.com are great sources for ideas. Observe what other people bring that seems good. For most people, variety is key, so mix it up. Take notes and review them before a trip! My current favorites include dinners adapted from Mike Clelland!’s book “Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips”
    • Know how much you eat
      This is probably the biggest key to saving food weight. Before every trip, weigh all your food. Then weigh any food you bring back. Very quickly you will learn how many pounds of food per day you consume. If I know I’m coming out in the late afternoon and will be eating dinner on the drive home, I don’t count that as a full day. Once you have your food number, stick to it. If you take more, you’ll just end up bringing it back. Ideally I like to arrive back at the car hungry (hopefully its not in bear country and I’ve been able to leave water and a snack there).

    Water weighs about 8 pounds to the gallon, so it adds up quickly. You do NOT want to skimp on water, adequate hydration is key to peak performance, good decision-making, and enjoyment of your trip. Here again, knowledge is power.

    • Research
      If water sources are limited, the more information, that is current information, that you have, the better off you are. In southern California, The Asabat Water Report is a great reference. Comb through trip journals, try to talk to people who have recently been where you are going, or at least went there in a similar season.
    • Monitor
      The goal is to carry enough water to get you to the next source. But if you’re unsure of the next source, you need to pack extra. Extra water is extra weight. Be smart about this, you don’t want to get into trouble. Keep aware of the sources as you come upon them: are they flowing more or less than you thought? If results are different than you anticipated, adjust accordingly. Monitor your urine color to make sure your hydration levels are adequate.
    • Have enough carry capacity
      I like to have capacity for more water than I expect to carry, in case I need to carry for a longer stretch. Water bladders weigh very little and pack small.

    Sleeping pad secrets

    I realize sleeping pads is a personal thing. I know people who absolutely feel they can’t sleep on anything less than a thick air mattress, and I’ve hiked with guys who didnt even bother with a pad at all. If you’re willing to experiment, you may be able to get by with very little pad indeed:

    • Go with foam
      The evazote foam used in the Nightlight pads is incredibly light, and a great insulator. In the longer versions, it’s bulkier than an air mattress, or a combo thermarest type pad, so it will take more room. The foam provides great insulation also. So try out foam. On the convoluted pads, some people like the bumps up, some say it’s better bumps down, so try both ways to figure out what works best for you.
    • Contour your sleeping area
      ONLY do this in a responsible Leave No Trace manner, where you have sand that can be smoothed back over, or duff or pine needles that can be replaced. If you choose your sleeping area well, you can create a small crater shaped for your butt, and an adjacent slight mound for your lumbar region. This will spread pressure evenly, supporting the small of your back, and will let you sleep like a baby. The most comfortable night I ever had was when we camped in an area they had been chipping the lower tree limbs. There was a thick bed of wood chips, and I got the butt crater just right. I drifted off and didn’t wake up until the sun was streaming in my face!
    • Lumbar wad
      Sometimes you’re not in an area where you can create a butt crater. In those cases, I like to wad up a small piece of unused clothing. A Driducks jacket works well. If you’re not in bear country, some food items or even trash in a double ziplock can work. You toss this into your sleeping bag, then when you’re lying down, position it in the small of your back. This serves the same purpose, supporting the small of your back and spreading out the pressure of contact with the ground. When you turn on your side, simply move the wad so it is against your side, at your waist, and it will take some pressure of the hip. If you get good at this, the results are amazing.
    • Tailbone pad Since most of the pressure is concentrated on your tailbone (on your back, or hip if you’re on your side), you can cut a small foam circle, and toss it in your bag, to get a double thick pad at the pressure point, without having to carry the weight of a double thick pad for the entire pad. Just adjust it when you’re in your bag to the correct location, and you’re good to go.
    • Better living through chemicals
      Okay, not everyone will agree with this, but a mild sleep aid can help take the edge off at night. It helps you drift to sleep, especially the first night or two when all the sounds are unfamiliar. And something like Tylenol PM can help the aches from a long hard day of hiking. Medicate responsibly.

    Changing your hiking schedule

    For people who get this, it can be a significant weight savings, simply by changing the way you hike. Most people like to hike all day, or most of the day, get into camp, set up their tent, cook dinner as night falls, and sit around until its time for bed. This means you are sitting around, not generating any heat from activity, during the coldest part of the day. In turn, this means you are probably bringing long underwear or a puffy jacket that is too warm to hike in, and the only purpose is to wear it around camp. Consider instead:

    • No breakfast or later breakfast
      The early morning will be one of the coldest parts of the day. It makes no sense to stand around in the cold. The best bet is to pack up quickly, throw a food bar into your pocket, and start hiking. The activity will quickly warm you. Then, when the sun is shining brightly and you come to nice sheltered or scenic place, stop for breakfast.
    • Do the main break in the late afternoon
      In the warmth of the afternoon, it’s great to take a long break. It gives you a chance to dry out any damp gear, and it breaks up the day. You can pick a scenic place, near water, which may not be good for sleeping at, but is perfect for cooking the main meal. You can enjoy the meal without shivering. Heck, you might even take a little nap if so inclined.
    • Hike on, and dry camp
      Then, hike on. You’ll be fueled by the meal, the cooling evening is great for hiking, and the miles will pass easily beneath your feet. As daylight wanes, you can pick a stealth camp without worrying about cooking. You don’t need flat rocks, logs to sit on, or water. You don’t need to worry about cleaning up in the cold and dark. You don’t need to worry about attracting bears from the smells of cooking. You hop into your sleeping bag warm from walking. And best of all, you saved the weight of the clothes you didn’t need to bring because you weren’t standing around in the cold!

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