Ultralight Luxury Backpacking? 3 words that shouldn't go together but... they do.
A case for Lightweight Luxury backpacking, even on a budget with the Gossamer Gear Mariposa
Take less, do more, with style, comfort and ease. That is what I’ve found ultralight techniques and gear can do. Make for a more enjoyable, and I dare say, luxurious, experience on the trail. Luxurious!?! In ultralight?!? Allow me to explain as I share some reflections after stumbling across the trail of the ultralight community. But please be advised, ultralight backpacking by it's very nature requires a cautious approach and an experienced backpacker to be safe. The inherent risks are many and ultralight gear requires a level of care and handling that goes beyond that of regular gear. Advance into it at a cautious pace and do not put yourself at unnecessary risk.
I’ve always hiked. Grew up with it and have continued most of my life. However, I slacked a bit for a while as life got busy in my 30’s. Didn’t get the kids out as much as I could have. I’m sure some of you can relate. There was just always something in the way. Fed up, I began anew. The mental obstacles were easy to overcome; it was the physical ones that needed some tweaking. The old school gear just has its limitations. Asking an 10 year old to carry everything she needed for a weekend up and down desert canyons in the Arizona heat, seemed a bit much, especially if you want it to be a positive experience. And guess where all the stuff she couldn’t carry went? Yep, that’s why we’re called “dad”.
So there I was a couple of years ago with my old school pack and gear (about 60 lbs.), two youngsters at my heels, looking at a six mile hike, thinking, ‘there’s got to be a better way’. And right after that hike is when I went online to see if there was lighter gear I might be able to afford. Low and behold, like everything else on the internet, there was an entire world of nuts out there who were blogging and chatting on forums about lightweight toothbrushes, base weights and alcohol stoves. They had built an entire industry along-side the existing camping world. A bunch of weirdo, sub-culture fanatics who count in grams and have discussions about lightweight gear at length and in detail far beyond that of any rational person.
Just my kind of people.
In truth, I’ve always been a gear nut. We didn’t call it ‘ultralight’ back in the 70’s when I was figuring out what could be a multi-use gear choice that would allow me to ditch two other items. My brothers and I just thought it was practical. And leaving luxury items at home was just an excuse to use our ‘bush craft’ more (another term we never heard of back then). Trimming existing gear down to the bare bones was just a way to ensure my big brothers wouldn’t take it because I had, “Messed it all up”. And who needs all those straps, hooks and tabs anyway? In the 80’s when I was doing weeks at a time in the woods or months in Europe on a one man tour, light weight was just a necessity. I have always fiddled with my gear. So, when I found the UL crowd, it was kind of like meeting another branch of my dysfunctional family tree for the first time, if ya know what I mean. (Maybe, ‘overly-functional’ is a better term). But enough backstory.
What does UL mean to somebody like me? Somebody a bit older, that treated their body like they were going to get a new one at some point and wants to hike and camp in comfort? It means you can.
YOU CAN go farther, faster and with more ease. And that last bit becomes pretty important as you rack up the mileage in life. The ease of hiking with less weight on your back means you are feeling better the whole way and that bum knee or whatever isn’t such a bummer anymore.
YOU CAN take with you those extra items that make for a more enjoyable experience. That camp stool to make cooking a lot more comfortable (see above pic) or that little survival hatchet you love for splitting logs or that nice little kite because, well, why not? Once embracing a good set of UL techniques you’ll quickly find you’ve lightened up your pack in so many other areas that you have weight (and space) to spare for some of those extra “luxury” items if you are so inclined.
YOU CAN, maybe most importantly, do this without compromising safety or comfort. And what’s really important is, having an enjoyable safe time.
Now, right off the bat I knew full well I was never going to have a 12 lb. load. I live and hike mostly in the Arizona desert. 12 lbs. is what my water weighs for a weekender. In addition, most of the time I take people out who have never backpacked and I want them to have fun and enjoy some little “extras” that are always nice on the trail or in camp. And really, when it comes down to it, I like having stuff with me. I mean, what’s Batman without his utility belt? I realize this is not really the main objective of “ultralight’ principles but, that, is my point.
(As a side note; you have to take it with a grain of salt when you read these forums and blogs of UL packers carrying a dot of dried toothpaste, a thimble, a strip of duct tape and 2 oz. of water in their 1 ½ lb. total weight pack, planning their trip from watering hole to watering hole along the suchandsuch trail. That doesn’t happen where I live. I commend them, even envy them in some ways but I’m not cooking in a thimble and sleeping on a piece of duct tape. I did that when I had a lot less mileage on me.)
I’m talking about using ultralight techniques and gear to facilitate ease and a more comfortable camp experience than you can get with old-school gear of equal weight. After some fun tinkering with my gear I now hover right around 30 lbs. and I find that that is the sweet spot for me. I carry stuff no UL packer would dream of carrying and I acknowledge that. But it works for me and that is a healthy approach to everything; learn from what others do and modify it to fit your own needs. Of course, the lure is to just buy the best UL item and I’ve given in to that at times. Drastically lightening your pack weight isn’t the easiest thing to do on a budget, but it can be done. In fact, it can be fun. If you get creative and search a little more with a UL mentality (some might call it, ‘psychoses’), you can do it, even on a budget. You may want to make some key purchases to drop some big pounds to get started. For me this meant a Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack and eventually a Six Moons Gatewood Cape poncho/shelter. But after that, the rest of the stuff, for the most part, I’ve found on the cheap; making it, modifying it or finding less expensive alternatives online or at Wally World, eBay or thrift stores and modifying those.
Here are some examples of inexpensive lightweight alternatives for gear.
- · World Famous Sports 40 degree sleeping bag. Purchased for $29. 1.3 lb. after taking the string out and excess unneeded tabs. It packs to the size of a Nalgene. Not going to work for winter but again, I’m in the Sonoran desert. I rarely even zip it up. My old school 20 degree bag weighs in at 3.4 lbs. so I may want to change that out for cold weather at some point.
- · Tyvek bathtub ground cloth. Its about 9 oz. We call it, the coffin. I Purchased the Tyvek on eBay for about $19 then got a roll of Tyvek tape at Home Depot for $7 and added a little elbow grease. It fits in my Gatewood Cape perfectly and shock cord loops attach to the Cape’s stakes. Oh yeah, add about $1.50 of shock cord.
Bathtub "coffin" groundcloth in Gatewood Cape
- · Stool. Ya’ know, to sit on. Everything I saw out there was too heavy, too short or too expensive. I thought the Grand Trunk micro stool looked nice but it looked a little short and was a bit pricey at over $30. (if you think that’s being too freaked out about price you’re not raising kids) I found a small similar stool on eBay for $11 (fold up but not collapsible). I just unscrewed the thing, pulled the top tubes out and put the screws back in. Then just replace the tubes and, viola! Just over 10 oz. (same as the Grand Trunk) and it’s almost twice as tall because the upper tubes are now resting on the screws in the legs. It even collapses down to a U-shape for packing. Great for star-gazing. Here; http://www.ebay.com/itm/131169766531?_trksid=p2055119.m1438.l2649&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT
- · Cheapo tent I found online for about $24 from China. 2.5 lbs. with poles for 2 people, and all I did to it was a coat of water-proofing, some seam sealer and sew the stake-tabs so they were attached a bit better. It works fine and was an essential part of my gear ‘til I sprung for the cape. Now it rides in my kids set up. Haven’t had it in a monsoon downpour yet but it passed the backyard hose test well. Here; http://www.ebay.com/itm/HLY-Z2003-Double-Person-Single-Layer-Family-Outdoor-Hiking-Camping-Folding-Tent-/380480691068?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item58966a9b7c
There is something fulfilling about modifying and making gear, testing it and knowing you’ve created something functional for an adventure. Granted, some of these, like the tent, are not the quality of your nice $400 ones on the market, but they work and work very well in some cases. And you’re spending a fraction of the cost of the big name items. Of course you want to assess your particular needs; climate, terrain, duration of trip, weather, fellow campers you have along, etc. But for weekenders with the kids or whatever, wow. But BEWARE; it is very easy to get carried away and start thinking about every gram of everything you see, every day and how it could be multifunctional or modified. Believe me, that rabbit hole is pretty deep and there are lots of shiny things out there to distract you. But ultralight doesn’t have to mean ultra-expensive. Get creative, watch some YouTube videos to get ideas and have fun lightening up your load.
I just got back from a trip up the West Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico and the new Tyvek coffin ground cloth I made worked like a charm for the Cape. Back yard testing was crucial and paid off. The stools (did another one for my girlfriend) were a great addition to camp and held up wonderfully. Next I’ll be taking one of my kids and a couple of his pals up to canyon country by four corners. We’ll test out some UL gear I’ve been helping him with for his set up.
|Mariposa at 30.5 lb. w/ essentials and crazy stuff|
I’m happy and hiking light with a bunch of gear in my ‘posa’. It may not be “Ultralight”, but it’s way confortable and when I make camp it’s an awesome camp. Now I just gotta get me one of those cool looking Airbeam Sleepers XL because it looks a lot more comfy than the damn CCF pad that isn’t enjoyable anymore and is taking up way too much room in my pack anyway. I guess that’s the next purchase. But it will add 5 oz.!!!! OH NOOOOOO… See what I mean? Every gram.
Hotshot Johnny Mincks
Trail Ambassador to the stars
P.S. Oh, yeah, BTW. The Gatewood Cape CAN sleep two IF, you add 2 or 3 inches to the pole, kick it out a bit, stake it and like the person you’re with. It’s tight but that makes it more fun. ; ) I’ve since found a person I like and she likes backpacking. Cheers.
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