The Ultimate Guide to Ultra-Light Camping: Camping is a beast with many faces, and the way you choose can vary enormously based on the individual in question. However, there is one way to camp that stands out amongst the others, and that is the most arcane science of ultra-light camping.
Every seasoned hiker has experienced the feeling of finally reaching the next campsite, footsore and weary, dropping their enormous pack filled with stove, tent, sleeping bag, folding chair, and pillow, only to stare in astonishment at the sight of a fellow camper happily setting up what looks like a high-tech plastic bag! This, then, is the ultimate guide to de-mystifying the science, or rather the art, of ultra-light camping.
Ultimate Guide to Camping: The Big Three
Most of the weight in your pack is taken up by three main pieces of equipment: your tent, your sleeping bag, and the pack itself. Of the three, your tent is certainly the most weight intensive, with poles, groundsheet, and flysheet all taking up valuable weight and space. However, it’s also one of the easiest places to cut weight, with several alternatives to chooses from.
Firstly, try replacing your tent with a simple tarpaulin; while you might need to break out your origami skills, it is perfectly possible to produce a lightweight shelter from just the tarpaulin itself and a single hiking pole, such as the one pictured here.
This simple one-pole setup is particularly effective as it doesn’t require any trees or external structures as support and as such can be erected on completely flat and open ground.
If you are lucky enough to have some trees nearby, then a simple A-frame with a ridgeline strung between two trees can also work very well. Alternatively, if you have space to spare, I would highly recommend bringing a hammock, but only if you are completely sure there’ll be trees next to your campsite. Since you’ll most likely need to carry the tarpaulin anyway, unless your hammock has a built-in flysheet, if there are no trees from which to sling it, your hammock can become a dead weight and can take up valuable space.
Using a hammock
Now, full disclosure: While I have personally used a hammock many times for camping in the past, it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people simply can’t stand the banana shape you end up in, and I’ve heard of others developing some quite serious back problems from this, so use it at your own risk! Some hammocks rely on poles to form a flat platform to combat this, but these can often end up weighing as much as a tent.
That said, sleeping off the ground can have some huge benefits, not least by reducing the amount of heat lost to the earth, and removing the eternal wilderness struggle of being woken at an ungodly hour by a stone under your sleeping mat. It also reduces the need for a pillow and is a huge improvement from an improvised one, such as a pack or rolled-up fleece.
Sleeping Bags: Down or Synthetic?
The next largest item in any hiker’s pack will be the sleeping bag. While it might not be as heavy as your tent, it is often the most space-intensive, especially if you’re using a three or four-season bag. The sleeping bag is also one of the areas where it can be dangerous to cut back too much, especially if you’ve already removed your tent.
Hypothermia is never far away when out in the wilds, especially at altitude, and taking a sleeping bag that’s inappropriate for the conditions you’re likely to face can put you and everyone else in your party at risk.
That being said, taking a four-season arctic sleeping bag in the middle of the summer is simply unnecessary, so investing in a lightweight bag for the summer months can be a good idea if you’re planning a lot of hiking in the season. A good way to determine how warm you need your sleeping bag to be is to add about 10°C or about 20°F to the manufacturer’s rating.
The manufacturer will tell the minimum temperature you can survive in the bag, but in reality you’ll be in for a miserable night at that temperature, leaving you in bad shape for the trail the next day. For example, if a bag was rated to -6°C, I wouldn’t want to be out in anything below 4°C to be sure of a good night’s sleep.
How to cut down on weight?
So, how to cut down on weight? One of the simplest, if not the cheapest, is to use a down bag. Down is lighter and warmer than synthetic material, and can pack into a smaller space, but has one major drawback: all of this is reversed as soon as it gets wet, and it can take a very long time to dry out, potentially leaving you stranded with a sleeping bag that’s worse than useless. While most modern bags have been treated with a water repellent in the factory, this only makes them water-repellent, not water-proof, not much good if you’ve just dropped your bag in a stream.
The risk of getting your bag wet can be reduced by using a waterproof stuff sack and even wrapping the entire bag in a dry bag to keep water out. This should be enough to keep the bag dry in all but the worst soakings.
Synthetic bags will dry much faster than their own equivalent, and tend to be much less expensive, but won’t provide the same amount of insulation for their size and weight. The size can be mitigated by using stiff sacks and compression sacks to make them as small as possible, but there’s no getting away from the weight.
One way to be sure to cut down on weight is to get the smallest sleeping bag you can comfortably fit in. Keeping the air space between you and the walls of your bag as small as possible will keep you warmer and save on space as weight. Opt for the shortest bag that will fit your length with the hood done up and without any compression on your feet or head. Compressing the bag’s insulation can reduce the insulating capacity of the bag, as it reduces the size of the air pockets needed to keep you warm.
Ultimate Guide to Camping: The Pack
The final, but arguably the most important of the “big three”, is the pack. Often overlooked when choosing ultralight gear, your pack is a great place to start when losing weight. Modern packs have already taken great steps to keep weight down but deciding where to cut corners can still be a challenge.
One of the first things to think about is “how big a pack do I actually need?”. As the old saying goes, “if you have it, you will fill it”: try to keep the size of your pack to between 40 and 60 liters. Keeping your pack this small can force you to prioritize which other items you actually need and help you to save weight in other areas of your packing.
Whilst choosing a new bag, take a look at what features you need, and which ones you don’t. It’s important to have enough storage within easy reach to store essentials such as snacks and compasses, but any outside pockets that you can’t reach with the full pack on are probably unnecessary, and the zippers can add extra weight.
Choose a top-loading pack rather than a side loader
In a similar vein, make sure to choose a top-loading pack rather than a side loader, as the zippers will add extra weight here too. Most long-distance packs will be closed at the top with either a roll-top or a drawstring, with drawstring tops usually having a “brain” – the detachable flap on top used to store small items that can’t fit in hip pockets, and sometimes the pack’s rain cover.
Many can also be detached and used as day packs, but they will add a lot of extra weight with the unnecessary buckles and zips used to detach them. They are also bulky and hard to situate correctly and can let water into the main pack through the drawstring if you’re not careful. If you’re serious about cutting weight, it’s best to choose a bag with a roll-top – while they make take a fraction longer to open, they make up for it by providing a tight and water-resistant seal.
Other Ways to Save Weight
With your “big three” items whittled down as far as possible, it’s time to turn our eyes to the other items in your pack. Of these, the heaviest is likely to be your cooking system, which can be easily trimmed down or even removed altogether. There are several types of stoves on the market, from archaic methylated spirit burners to modern ultralight wood stoves.
The most common type of stove is probably butane or propane single-use canister stoves, although they have the drawback of not being particularly windproof, making cooking in high winds a frustrating experience. However, they’re fine for most backpacking trips, although an extreme cold can reduce their performance significantly
Another option that’s rapidly gaining in popularity is a simple woodburning stove, one of the lightest options out there. It relies on foraged fuel to burn, and as such cuts out the heaviest part of the stove altogether. However, they rely on being able to actually find fuel, which could be difficult at very high altitudes, deserts, and moorlands, or anywhere else where it’s tough to find trees.
Remove the stove altogether
Another, more radical option is to simply remove the stove altogether, and rely on meals that are ready-cooked or can be eaten raw. Personally, I’d prefer to take that little bit of extra weight and be able to boil a kettle in the morning, but again this will come down to your own personal preference.
Other than the stove, the easiest ways to cut down on weight rely on shaving down the extra grams as much as possible and only taking what you are certain you’ll need. Only take clothing appropriate for the conditions and cut down on superfluous items such as deodorant. Replacing your bulky survival knife with a small multitool, shaving down your toothbrush handles, and using lithium-ion batteries can all keep shave off valuable grams, which taken together can really add up.
Conclusion: Ultimate Guide to Camping
Hiking with a full pack is hard, and it can be all too easy to put on your pack in the safety of your own home and think “Oh, this isn’t too bad”, only to find yourself staggering under the weight halfway up the first hill. It’s better to cut down as much as possible before you leave home, or you might regret it later! A good way to test your pack is to walk up a few flights of stairs – if you’re tired when you get to the top, you might need to cut down a bit more. Remember, on a long hike, you could be carrying it for days at a time, so it pays to keep things as small and light as you can – your body will thank you later!