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Ultra-lightweight camping: Carry less, do more

Ultra-lightweight and super ultra-lightweight campers are carrying packs that weigh under 12 pounds and 5 pounds, respectively. It may seem like very little, but that's the point.
The Obi Elite 1P tent, according to NEMO Equipment, Inc.'s website, is the lightest poled tent made by NEMO.
The Obi Elite 1P tent, according to NEMO Equipment, Inc.'s website, is the lightest poled tent made by NEMO. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Whether you're an experienced camper or are just starting out, you might be weighing yourself down with extra baggage. Instead of carrying a traditional pack that weighs 50 or 60 pounds, ultra-lightweight and super ultra-lightweight campers are carrying packs that weigh under 12 pounds and 5 pounds, respectively. It may seem like very little, but that's the point.

True ultra-lightweight backpackers share an extreme attention to detail. They choose lithium over alkaline batteries because of the difference in weight. They cut the corners off maps, the handles off toothbrushes, and extra straps off backpacks to shed weight. Every ounce counts when you are going for the lightest pack possible.

Carrying less enables you to go farther since you don't tire as quickly, and it can be better for your body, too, as Gregg Spoering, who has been camping since he was 11 years old, discovered.

"It has saved my knees. I thought I was going to have to give up backpacking 10 years ago," he said. "I'm just as comfortable in the woods now than when I carried a 'traditional' pack."

But for the average camper looking to go lighter, there are a few main tips to follow. First, adjust your big three: tent, backpack and sleeping bag. Consider using a tarp to replace your tent. Choose a simpler backpack; extra padding, pockets, and zippers can add up. (If you have less stuff, you probably won't need a heavy-duty backpack anyway.) Consider spending a little more on a down sleeping bag. They are light and warm.

Second, scrutinize. Think about what you want to bring, then decide what you actually need. Do you need a fresh shirt each day? Can you simplify your first-aid kit based on what you have used in the past? Know how to use what you take. Make cuts like you mean it and be honest about your skill level; let that guide what you bring.

Third, use one item for multiple purposes. Spoering suggests using a bandana as a potholder, headband, towel and even a map, since some are printed with maps of popular hiking areas. There are others: make a beer can cooking pot, fashion a Betty Crocker frosting container into an insulated mug, or use a disposable water bottle instead of a heavy metal one.

If you've made all the cuts you can but want to shave off more weight, let's get technical. The difference between a not-so-heavy tent and an ultra-lightweight tent comes down to materials and design. Brandon Davey, senior designer at NEMO Camping Equipment, explains the evolution of tent frames.

"In the past 20-30 years, everything has gotten lighter through material choices, especially, but also design decisions," he said. Tent frame designs have evolved from A-frames, to dome tents, to bivy sacks and hammock tents, and new fabrics are always being developed to be more durable, breathable and lightweight, he added. NEMO uses computer-aided design software to find the minimum amount of poles and material they can use to still have a comfortable tent.

"It's common in the industry to believe that lightweight is synonymous with not as durable, smaller volume for tents, and less features," Davey said. That's not necessarily true. However, gear made from ultra-light fabric — fabric that isn't designed to carry 50 pounds —- does have to be treated more carefully.

So, how much will it cost you?

At larger companies, ultra-light gear can be more expensive than standard gear. "It's a case where less is more," said Davey. NEMO, for example, factors in additional costs for improved materials and extra time spent on the design process. However, gear from smaller companies devoted to ultra-light gear, like Six Moon Designs and Granite Gear, often costs less.

Pride in self-made equipment is sewn into the ultra-lightweight philosophy. Gossamer Gear, a homespun company, began when its founder, Glen Van Peski, wanted a lighter pack, couldn't find it, and designed it himself. As other people wanted to buy his packs, he enlisted his wife and some neighborhood women to make them. The company grew from there.

This grassroots beginning makes sense when you consider one of the movement's forerunners, a woman named Grandma Gatewood whose hiking adventures have been mythologized. She is reported to have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 1955 in her 60s, wearing tennis shoes, eating berries along the way and carrying her belongings in an old shower curtain. Whether the details have been embellished or not, her minimalistic approach to hiking embodies the philosophy.

Providing more concrete tips to follow, in 1999 Ray Jardine laid out the details in a book about going ultra-light, "Beyond Backpacking." It was published during a time when heavy gear provided a sense of security to hikers, if a false one. Although the book has its detractors, the points he makes — about the value of carrying less, much less — have affected many, including Van Peski, who was introduced to the book during his time as a Boy Scout leader. Experience with scouting seems to be a rich breeding ground for the move to ultra-lightweight.

Like Van Peski, long-time hiker Joe Pokorny was "awakened to the light side of things" when he was a Boy Scout leader.

"I quickly realized the beauty of not carrying everything I own. Since then, I have never looked back," he said.

Pokorny is no purist, carrying a 20-pound pack before consumables, but he does have some good tips for what to eat on the trail.

"Breakfast is always oatmeal with freeze-dried fruits and pre-cooked bacon. Coffee and tea are light to carry and good for the soul," he said. Try cheese, tuna fish and flat breads for lunch, and freeze-dried tortellini with powdered sauces for dinner. Pokorny even has an evening cocktail recipe: hot tea, powdered Tang, lemon, a cinnamon stick and scotch.