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Ultralight Guinea Pigs

Guinea Pig
Will Hike for Food

If you want to become an ultralight backpacker, you need to be willing to experiment on yourself. There’s only so much you can learn by reading articles, asking questions on forums, or watching youtube videos. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to take some risks and try out a few things to see if you can learn how to stay comfortable with less.

When I started this process, I began by experimenting with different layering systems in order to understand the relationship between exertion, warmth and insulation which we refer to as thermoregulation. I did this by taking many day hikes in different weather conditions including sun, rain, snow, high humidity, etc. and carefully observing the effect that different layers, gloves, hat, and gaiters had on my comfort level.  In the process, I learned that I could easily stay warm with very few layers as long as I kept moving, and that having many thin layers was better than carrying a multi-layer coat that had all the layers sewn together.

After that, I started experimenting with single wall tents to see if they helped reduce internal condensation and whether I’d like a tent that has more airflow than a more conventional double walled tent with an all-enclosing external fly.

As I got more confident, I did more and more experiments on longer and longer backpacking trips, testing whether I liked:

  • alcohol stoves better than canister ones
  • hammocks instead of single-walled tents
  • tarps instead of single-walled tents
  • shaped tarps instead of flat tarps
  • long pants instead of shorts
  • a bivy sack instead of a plastic ground sheet
  • a higher capacity pack instead of a smaller one
  • trail runners instead of boots
  • quilts instead of sleeping bags
  • whether I could use clothes to augment the warmth of a lighter sleeping bag
  • and more…

And while my experiments and observations continue to this day, there were a few less than optimal experiences along the way. Once I nearly froze to death in a hammock, another time I got swamped in a tarp tent during heavy rainfall, my bivy bag has leaked, I’ve soaked a down bag, had to eat cold food, set gear on fire, had high winds blow down a tent, you get the drift. But those bad experiences taught me some lessons I’ll never forget, so I guess they were worth it. :-)

When you boil it all down there’s really very little difference between a 10 pound pack and an 11 pound, 12 pound or 13 pound pack except the label “Ultralight.” But I think that label misses the point. It’s not your gear weight that counts, but what you’ve learned about what you need to backpack safely and efficiently.

Updated: 2016.

12 comments

  1. Experimenting on youself is easy. All the things you mention are good areas to play with. I have been down to 6 pounds base load. Mostly, I was pretty comfortable except at the cold extremes. We get quite a bit of that in the ADK's, soo, I added a thicker pad, a jacket, an extra layer of long johns, and, the white gas stove for warm drinks. Anyway, this brought the total back to about 10 pounds. But, never again will I experience a 32F night in July without adequate coverage and warm drinks. BTW: It stayed below 40F till 11:00, but as you say, it is easier once you get moving and off the ridges.

    The variability of terrain and conditions associated with the geography can make a BIG difference in what you need for a UL trip. Plan on the worst you can encounter and you will always be comfortable.

  2. I'm taking the plunge and doing three nights on the Superior Hiking Trail this weekend! Using a tarp and bivy in place of a traditional double walled tent for the first time. Also reducing gear to necessities and food to a more reasonable weight by upping calories and eliminating water-weight. This is a long way from "ultra light" but at least I'm "lighter"! You're blog has been a source of information and inspiration. Thanks!

  3. Fantastic – Tarping is a huge step, but it opens up a lot of flexibility that you can't get with a tent. It takes some practice, so give it a chance. Enjoy!

  4. The tarp is what started me along the way, too, although it was for economic reasons. My MEC silnylon tarp that I still use after 6 years only cost me about $60, compared to almost any double-wall tent out there.

    Then there was the endless amount of time I started spending on websites like this one…

  5. I don't know how smart actual guinea pigs are (they must not be too bright if everyone's using them for tests), but Grandpig here has learned a bunch by trial and mostly error. Just a few examples. If I tried to put them all in, Phil's bandwidth would go permanently over limit and he'd have to shut the blog down.

    1972: Grandpig and his brother (we were teenpigs then) learned not to pitch tent in the woods at spot at the base of a mountain that's devoid of leaves, brush or twigs. The reason spaces like that are so clear is that all the forest detritus, along with hapless foolhardy teenagers' tents and sleeping bags gets scrubbed away during torrential midnight downpours.

    Late 1972: Fifty pound packs are too heavy for an enjoyable trip. Lesson was not fully learned for another 30+ years. Grandpig thought of backpacking as being miserable in beautiful and noble surroundings.

    1980: Grandpig and guineawife (I'd better not use "pig" anywhere near references to her) learned steep climbs right from the trailhead can be beneficial. A hundred yards up that hike in Rocky Mountain NP, we turned around and dumped all the extra changes of clothing back in the rent car. We were still way too heavy (see Late 1972 above) but in much better shape than we could have been. On a level trail, we'd have been too far out to want to go back and cull our load.

    1984: Telescopes are too heavy to carry up a mountain… unless your brother in law’s cousin owns it and wasn’t along to learn the late 1972 lesson. We enjoyed the stargazing from the top of South Rim but cuz was too whipped to look through his own scope.

    Same hike: Freeze dried stroganoff is fit for neither man nor beast.

    1985: When camping on top of a mountain, get up early enough to watch sunrise. Lazypig here slept late and mountain was socked in when he straggled out of his tent. Had to listen to his sisterpig all the way back down the mountain attempt to regale him with tales of the awesome sunrise she experienced. When we finally got back to the trailhead, there was one cloud in the sky, parked exactly on top of South Rim.

    1994: Broken pack frame but still hadn't learned what I should have in late 1972. Baling wire and duct tape saved the hike. Of course, if my brother and I weren't carrying all the baling wire and duct tape, the frame might not have broken.

    1996: Do not allow Northwest to use Kelty pack as wheel chocks under airliner. At least make sure they take it out before taxiing. Fortunately, this happened on the return from a Montana hike, not on the way up.

    2004: Late 1972 lesson finally sunk in. As my brother and I fixed breakfast with our hundred pounds plus gear spread over about three acres on the last day of our 47 mile CDT hike, another hiker showed up with 25 lb. on his back. We grilled him, but not for breakfast. After we got back to my brother’s house, we decided cast iron skillets, hatchets, extra pairs of jeans, two boxes of ammunition (sans anything to shoot it out of), five canisters of fuel (you never know how much you might need), extra shoes, and a host of other sundry items weren’t necessary. We took all the comforts to be comfortable and were miserable because we had all the comforts. We ditched our gear and philosophy and went from just being plain old pigs to smarter pigs.

    2006: Make sure water bladder isn’t leaking when put in sleeve on pack. Wet gear and no water isn’t fun.

    Early 2007: Don’t try strenuous winter hike in snow and wet gear without tent while suffering from severe bronchitis. Grandpig “hit the wall” on easiest part of hike–final three and a half miles downhill took three and one half hours. Grandpig collapsed in RV and scared guineawife the half to death that grandpig hadn’t used yet.

    2007: Don’t pass up an opportunity to fill water on desert hike. While in Grand Canyon, thirstypig misjudged how much water was left in his 3 liter bladder and got himself into very dicey situation.

    Late 2007: When taking four year old grandson on first overnight hike, be sure to check and make sure all gear is in pack. While packing and repacking small GoLite Speed pack, all the warm layers somehow got left out the last time. Also, when park service says campsite is “well shaded”, it doesn’t necessarily refer to trees. It might also mean the sun doesn’t rise at that side of mountain until 11 AM. It was 18 degrees when we tried to get up. We cowered in our down bags until we warmed enough to move. Grandpig also learned not to give four year old bottle of fresh hot chocolate. Before could warn his little namesake, grandson guzzled the drink, toasting his tonsils, an incident he remembers to this day.

    2008: See 2006.

    2010: Grandpig enjoyed watching brother in law learn much of the preceding on thirty mile hike in Arkansas. Like grandpig, brother in law couldn’t learn from reading, listening, or watching. He learned from experiencing.

    2010: See 2008 and 2006. Grandpig is done with bladders. This hike also was guinea pig hike for alcohol stove. Grandpig learned not to rely on old box of strike anywhere matches for starting stove. He also learned not to cut the fuel supply so closely and to have backup water carriers for use when replacement bladders leaked. Grandpig also learned to panhandle on the trail for matches and water bottles.

    2011: Hikes planned with brother in law and grandson. Will experiment with different layering systems, more with alcohol stove, and recipigs.

  6. Grandpa, you make me laugh out loud! Taking my 3 boys I have had similar mistakes….

    1. 18 degree morning after two wet the bed and soaked all of us sleeping in a 3-man tent.

    2. Heet with "added fuel injector cleaner" plugged my alcohol stove about half way into the first meal of a 3 night trip. (Fortunately, non-ultralight friends shared their stoves.)

    3. Instant rice that would NOT soften in my cozy…it needed to simmer.

    We have definitely learned a lot, but mistakes with your family can be serious. Another PATIENT partner or family is invaluable as you experiment.

  7. Granpa, I laughed my but off. The wife asked what I was laughing at. I made her read what you had written. She was laughing, too!

  8. Grandpa – Hilarious – thanks for sharing.

  9. Scott,

    Once the bottle of chocolate milk cooled, my four year old grandson managed to dump its entire contents into his Marmot down bag. Wet bags and young kids seem to go together. It took some guinea pigging to clean and restore the loft of that bag.

    I didn't mention 2005. I'd pared my pack weight way down but my belt weight was almost thirty pounds higher than it should have been and I struggled greatly on uphill pitches. I decided to get to the point I weighed less with pack than I did without it at the time. I have since accomplished that and although I'm older, I'm in much better hiking shape.

    I also fixed plenty of JetBile before I got the hang of what I could safely cook in my JetBoil. My grandson thinks mac and cheese is gourmet food on the trail but he wouldn't touch the stuff I fixed last year on the alcohol stove. It was about like your instant rice when I prepared it for supper. I worked on it some more at breakfast and it morphed into mac and cheese pudding, equally unappetizing. The inside of my Caldera Keg became coated with burnt mac and cheese, approximately the texture and taste of body armor.

    After all the jerry rigging and guinea pigging, I still love to backpack. My mother says I fell on my head quite often when I was a kid, which probably explains everything.

  10. Sounds exactly like a scout campout.

    Though as one of the proselytizers for something less than crushing weights I find I have to test things out to be sure that they work. For a backpacking merit badge group I'm working with I showed how to get a 12 pound (or less) base weight with REI gear. All stuff I knew would work because I'd used it.

  11. I am lucky enough to live near some trails which a variety of terrain. I like to get out there and try new gear configurations in low risk situations before taking it to the Whites. I have also cut down a lot of weight by noting the stuff that has sat in my pack for years without being used. For example, 2 shells might be redundant.

  12. That was funny Grandpig, thanx for sharring.

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