Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Ultralight

For a long time my gear tended towards expeditionary weight, at first because I favored annual longish (two-weeks) High Sierra trips – sometimes alone – and later because I did a lot of backpacking with my kids when they were quite young.

More recently I have become interested in using lighter (and less) equipment. The first time I tried this was on a trip I do at least once each year – in fact it is my traditional “last trip of the season” – from Tuolumne Meadows to Fletcher Lake. Typically, in the past I would arrive at Fletcher pretty well worn-out. (Which always seemed bizarre since it is only 1700′ of climbing and a bit more than 7 miles…) On this first “light” trip I used light shoes, took no stove, and left a lot of gear behind. I got to Fletcher Lake and felt so good that I climbed to a nearby pass to enjoy the view after setting up camp.

Compared to the weights I would have carried on similar trips in years past, I’m convinced that I saved at least 10 pounds or more of pack weight on a weeklong Pioneer Basin 2003 trip I took with the Talusdancers.

The following is a summary of some of my current thinking about equipment in light of this new approach.

Clothing

When I go for the fast and light approach I tend to modify the full-on clothing list above in two ways:

  • Rather than taking extra gear “just in case” I take just enough to remain comfortable in likely conditions. I do not go so light as to risk my health or safety, but I do think carefully about how less gear can be used more effectively. If you never have to wear everything you carry, you are probably carrying too much clothing. (New backpackers should err on the side of being over-equipped.)
  • I have replaced some of the heavy-duty equipment that I used to carry (and still do in certain conditions – e.g. winter) with lighter alternatives.

Here are some highlights:

  • Replace Gore-Tex mountaineering parka (Marmot) and full-zip pants (REI) with with Marmot Precip jacket and pants. This probably saves 1 pound.
  • Replace heavy fleece jacket (Sierra Designs or Marmot) with very light Windstopper vest (REI) and light fleece half-zip top (REI) or an Arc’teryx Delta jacket or, more recently, my 11 ounce Western Mountaineering down Flight Jacket. This results in at least a half pound savings.
  • Replace heavy mountaineering boots with either ankle-height lightweight boots (Merrell Torrent Mid) or, more recently, running shoe-style Merrell Reflex shoes or similar. This can save between 2 and 3 pounds.
  • Replace long pants with (Moonstone) cycling-style tights worn under shorts. Augment with slightly heavier (The North Face) tights if necessary or, better yet, just put Gore-Tex pants on over them. Another half-pound saved here. Alternatively, use a pair of zip-off-leg hiking pants plus light long underwear.
  • Climb in the sleeping bag if it gets too cold!

Equipment

  • I started using a bivy sack (Moonstone Mountaineering) recently and I now use this instead of a tent if the weather does not look too threatening.
  • When traveling alone and expecting “interesting” weather I take a small one-person tent (Walrus Zoid 1.0 – an excellent backpacking tent for one).
  • I often carry an Integral Designs Siltarp to augment the bivy sack. Compared to the tent, there is a slight weight advantage (perhaps 1/2 pound) and this gear packs smaller.
  • My smaller Mountainsmith Auspex pack (4000 cu. in and 3 1/2 or 4 pounds) is about half as heavy as my traditional Crestone II pack. Even if I augment the Auspex with the Boogeyman pack (1000 cu. in and 1 pound) my load is still several pounds lighter. I have gone out for more than a week with this combination. On shorter trips I carry a very light and slightly smaller Gregory pack.
  • I frequently carry a very light Marmot Arroyo 850-fill down bag that weighs about a pound and a half and is rated (perhaps optimistically) to 30 degrees. By wearing some extra clothes in the sleeping I find that I’m never too cold in summer Sierra conditions. In colder conditions I use the excellent Marmot Hydrogen bag.

Food/Cooking

I’m usually terrible about calculating how much food I’ll need. I always used to return from a trip with enough food in my pack to go out for another couple of days – even on two-day trips! So, my main weight-saving trick is, quite frankly, to try to leave the extras behind. I can save at least a couple of pounds this way – more on longer trips.

(On my summer 2004 9-day South Lake to Onion Valley trip I calculated very carefully. At the end of the trip I had not eaten a Balance bar, a small bag of awful-tasting dried tropical fruit, and one fig bar.)

Another option that can save a significant amount of weight on short trips is to forego using a stove. Even my smallest stove with minimal fuel, a small pot, assorted other cooking items, and a cup and a spoon will weigh at least a few pounds. Eliminate these and eat foods that require no preparation: Energy bar(s) for breakfast; the same stuff as always for lunch and snacks; more lunch/snack foods for dinner. The tradeoff here is that this kind of food probably weighs more per day, so it only makes sense on short trips where the weight saved by leaving the cooking equipment at home is greater than the extra weight of the food. (Note: This diet sounds worse than it turns out to be in actual practice… though I sure wouldn’t want to eat this way at home!)

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