I’m packing pretty darned light, just looking for some tips to shave those last few grams

You’ve done the hard work, and you’ve reaped the big benefits. Your small, light pack is the envy of others you hike with. You quote gear weights to the nearest hundredth of an ounce. But, as any skilled practitioner, you’re always on the lookout for ways to save a couple of more grams. You’re willing to try new things if they promise to save weight, even if you decide after trying them that they’re not for you. So lets have a discussion about some areas you may not have fully explored yet:

Wearing insulation a good idea?

There is some thought that one way to minimize your pack weight is to take a lighter sleeping bag, then take a puffy jacket to make up the additional insulation. In theory, this sounds attractive, but my contention is you can save even more weight by rearranging your schedule so you’re not standing around in the coldest part of the day (see Changing your hiking schedule), taking no wearable insulation to speak of, and putting the extra weight into a warmer sleeping bag:

  • Wearable insulation is inefficient
    A sleeping bag is very efficient insulation. It’s contoured to your body, and there’s no wasted fabric with extra appendages. In fact, if you follow my lead, there’s no wasted down on the bottom of the bag, it’s all concentrated on the sides and top. So, in my regular sleeping bag, I have about 10 ounces of down in a 18 ounce bag, a ratio of about 56% down, with a loft of about 3 inches. Now look at a jacket, say the Montbell Alpine Light Down Jacket. A size medium weights 11.3 ounces, of which 4.0 ounces is down, a ratio of only 35%, and say a loft of maybe 2 inches max. Because of all the extra fabric, even a light, well-made jacket of light materials is inherently inefficient compared to a sleeping bag. So the combo of the jacket and sleeping bag yield (assuming the bag is sized to allow the jacket to loft fully) 5 inches of combined loft, at least for the torso, for a weight of about 29 oz. In comparison, my warm bag has about 14 ounces of down in a 22 ounce bag, a ratio of 65%, and a 5 inch loft. So, for a system that is at least as warm, probably warmer, I’ve saved almost half a pound! If you carry a nice warm jacket, it’s likely way too warm for actually hiking in, so you’re really just carrying it to wear around camp anyway. If you revise your schedule so you’re not hanging around camp, you don’t need the jacket, and the additional weight is much better spent in a warmer bag.
  • Michelin man
    In a pinch, you can drape your bag around you in camp. If you run the foot through the hood drawstring, it will hold it together, and if you upsize your shell by a size, the bag will layer nicely under it as a body shawl. Sure, it’s not super convenient, but did you notice I just took a half pound out of your base pack weight? If you were at 8 lbs., that’s a 6% reduction, not too shabby!
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Maximizing your sleeping bags rating

When you’ve gotten to the rarified heights of ultralight backpacking, you find that every ounce counts. The corollary is that you need to wring the maximum performance out of every item in your tiny pack. One way to do this is proper care of your sleeping bag:

  • Don’t overstuff
    I don’t use a stuff sack for my sleeping bag. It’s a waste of weight, and doesn’t allow flexibility in packing the bag. At the beginning of a longer trip, I might have to push my sleeping bag pretty well into the bottom of my pack. But, as the food load lightens, I let the sleeping bag take up as much space as possible inside the pack.
  • Keep it clean
    Washing your bag with the proper cleanser and equipment, or having it done professionally, will help it maintain maximum loft. Your natural body oils will gradually degrade its performance without proper care.
  • Allow recovery time
    If you are stopping in the middle of the afternoon for your main meal, take out your bag, allow it to air out and let the sun drive any moisture out. I like to have my bags made with black fabric on the inside, so I can turn them inside out for maximum solar gain. Also, when I roll into camp, as soon as I have my groundcloth down, I unpack my sleeping bag to give it the most time to fluff up before I climb into it.
  • Location, location, location
    Where you bed down for the night can easily make a 10-degree difference. If you’re at the edge of your bags performance (which is the light place to be), you will want to learn to avoid katabatic flows. You can research it yourself, but basically cold air settles. You don’t want to be in an area that will collect cold air, or in an area that cold air will be whistling through all night. I’m sure you’ve noticed, hiking in the early morning, how the temperature drops precipitously when you cross a gully. Imagine sleeping in that colder air! Also you will want to be aware of where breezes will form during the night so you can pitch a tarp in the right direction to shelter you from them. You will want to become a backcountry ninja, learning to make maximum use of your environment. Look for sheltered locations which will make a difference in how warm you sleep.
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Getting tucked into bed

Usually there’s nobody on the trip to turn your bed down and put a mint on your pillow (if this happens on your trips, let me know, I want to come along). If I’ve got a bag that’s going to be at the edge of the temperature rating, I want to do every little thing I can to eke every last degree out of it:

  • An evening walk
    If for some reason I’ve been standing around long enough that I’m not still warm from hiking, I will usually head out for a quick walk before going to bed. This gets the blood pumping, and there’s nothing worse than climbing into bed slightly chilled.
  • Plump your bag
    Before I head out on an evening stroll, I go through my plumping routine with my bag. The supreme master at this, at least as far as I’ve ever hiked with, is Don ‘Photon’ Johnston. Don is a serious, methodical guy, and he has a routine with his sleeping bag that is awesome to behold. I am but a poor student of his form, but my routine is to grab the bag by the two bottom edges, hold it horizontally upside down, and shake. This gets the down in the continuous baffles to shift around so its on the top of the bag. After I’ve done this for awhile, I will swoosh the bag around in the air a few times, holding the bag open, so it creates a windsock, and plumps up the top of the bag.
  • Nuts on your pillow
    Better than mints on your pillow, is nuts on your pillow. For a long cold night, I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night shivering. I don’t have a lot of fat on my body (although this appears to be changing as I grow older), so I’m always looking to put some fat or oils into my body, to give my metabolism some staying power through the night. I like to eat nuts to provide that fuel, to keep the internal furnaces going. You can incorporate them into dessert if you take chocolate covered almonds or macadamia nuts (not recommended for desert trips).
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Ultralight cooking options

There’s nothing quite like a hot meal on the trail to give you a boost of energy and morale. It can also be an important safety margin during an unexpectedly cold night, or an emergency situation. So let’s look at some ways to avoid adding too much weight for that warm meal:

  • Minimize the number of hot meals
    It’s just common sense, but if you have a hot drink and hot cereal at breakfast, a hot lunch, and soup, a hot meal, and a hot chocolate at dinner, you’re going to need a lot more fuel than if you limit yourself to one hot meal a day. It’s all about what’s important to you. You may decide it’s worth an extra couple of ounces a day to have the extra hot drinks and meals. But I’ve hiked with people who cut down to one hot coffee at the mid morning coffee break, and a hot dinner, and found they didn’t miss all the other hot meals and drinks. Part of this can be changing your schedule, so you roll out and start walking in the morning, instead of lounging around in the cold.
  • Try solid fuel
    Esbit or similar tabs pack more heat per ounce than alcohol. You can blow them out and reuse unburned portions of the tabs. Yeah, they do smell a little, so you want to make sure you use them in plenty of air. Yeah, they can make the bottom of your pot black, so you scrape it a couple of times on the dirt or sand and squirt a little water on it. Did you say you were serious about losing those last few grams or not?
  • Use a light pot (and windscreen, etc)
    My personal favorite is the Caldera Keg. I strip it down to just the Caldera, the keg, top and the gram cracker. Its a great system. I usually boil some water for soup, then use the rest of it for a freezer bag meal. I wrap the dinner in my sleeping bag to cook while I finish my first course of soup. Then it’s time to tuck into my hot dinner.
  • Try natural fuels
    This will depend on where you hike. Many areas require you to have a fuel stove. However, in those other areas, sometimes you can just make small cooking fires. This can be especially effective if hiking as a pair and eating out of one pot. Hiking with my buddy Read, we got it down to a system, with one of us lighting and tending a small fire under the pot perched on rocks, and the other finding tiny twigs and arranging them by size. We never used anything thicker than a little finger. The Bush Buddy or similar stoves are a great solution also. Very effective stoves, especially for groups. While the stoves are heavier than other options, for longer trips, especially for groups, not having the weight of fuel could pay off. Again, be responsible, observe LNT ethics, and obey all regulations. It’s not about you; when you’re out there, you’re representing all ultralight hikers.
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The ultimate cooking option

The ultimate cooking option could be to not cook. Besides saving the weight of a stove, pot and fuel, it simplifies your load by reducing the total number of gear items. One note, I do not recommend trying this if you are hiking with people who are cooking. Some tips to try:

  • Take foods that can go either way
    One option for easing into it is looking for foods that can be eaten warm or cold. Dried refried beans is an example. It can be mixed up cold and eaten over corn chips or wrapped in a tortilla, or warmed up.
  • Use your body heat
    If the weather is warm, you can rehydrate and even add warmth to foods by carrying them between the back of your neck and your pack, or hanging them elsewhere (just be sure to double-bag). Sometimes just putting them in the back pocket of your pack when its sunny will work wonders.
  • Take bars and snacks
    Especially if the trip is going to be short, there are many satisfying options in terms of bars and snacks. Everyone has their favorite, but I have not found anything that beats ProBars for easy-to-grab, whole food nutrition.
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First aid

First aid kits is sometimes a difficult place for people to lose weight from. They are driven by the ‘what-if’s, and have been drilled to be prepared. We’ve talked a little bit about the importance of planning, education and experience (see Knowledge is power!), and this is particularly true of first aid. To really minimize your pack weight, you need to think carefully about every trip, and customize the load accordingly. When planning your first aid gear, there are a number of factors to consider:

  • Number and experience of people in party
    If you are heading out by yourself, you will not want to cut it as close as if you are going on a trip with 4 other experienced backpackers. Numbers give you redundancy; in equipment, medical knowledge, and decision-making. If you are going by yourself, but the trip is along a well-used trail, this provides some modicum of backup. If your route is a remote cross-country traverse, you’re likely to really be by yourself on a solo trip, and need to plan accordingly.
  • Experience with the planned route in the same season
    If you are familiar with the area you will be hiking in, particularly in the same season, you can get by taking less gear than when you are heading into unfamiliar territory, or in a season you have less experience with.
  • Bailout points
    If your planned trip has a number of points where you can bail out to civilization if things get dicey, you can take more chances than when you are heading into a remote wilderness that has one way in and out.
  • Pack weight of participants
    If you are in a group with everyone carrying 50 lbs. on their back, and someone sprains their ankle, you have limited options. If you’re in a group of lightweight hikers with everyone carrying 20 lbs., it becomes easier to redistribute the struggling hiker’s load among the rest of you. God forbid, if you have a real emergency and need to go get help, you will be less tired from a light load, and better able to scoot down the trail for help.
  • First Aid training of hikers
    If you are traveling with a certified Wilderness EMT, or members of your group have a current Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, or your hiking buddy is an active SAR volunteer, you have a better margin of safety. And of course, since you have to carry your brain anyway, and it doesn’t weigh any more no matter how much it holds, you should pursue wilderness first training yourself!
  • What first aid items have you used before?
    Carefully analyze what you usually use, sometimes use, and have never ever used. You may still want to carry something you have never actually used, but be aware of it. Consider cutting down on the number of an individual item you carry (do you need 5 bandaids?). Whatever I use from my first aid kit on a trip, I leave the wrapper in my first aid kit. Then when I get back home, I know what I need to add so my kit is always ready to go. Avoid fancy, heavy cases. I like a small Aloksak waterproof bag, which lets me see where everything is.
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