If you’re in shape, you might find it easy to run. A leisurely jog around the block or on the treadmill at the gym is no sweat. It’s not unusual to believe your body is capable of doing anything. After all, it’s simply putting one foot in front of the other. Try it. Start running flat out, but then do it over rough, rocky terrain in the dark … and imagine that you don’t know where you’re going. Now, add that you’re completely terrified. Now, consider your gear. The 20 pounds of equipment on your back that you thought would be essential when you packed it at home will soon feel like 20 tons. In a survival situation during which you are traveling a great distance and you are trying to do it quickly, every ounce of gear you have stuffed in your bugout bag or emergency pack will soon sap more and more of your energy. Consider a weight-loss program … for your gear.
Getting started—ultralight survival training. To stay ahead of the curve, I recently challenged my associates to cut the weight of their gear to a mere 10 pounds for a three-day weekend trip. By industry standards, “ultralight” translates to fewer than 10 pounds—excluding water, food, and fuel. By comparison, “superlight” is fewer than 5 pounds. What started off as a challenge proved to be a learning experience that ultimately impacted perspectives, as well as the gear carried, when weight has less of a bearing on the decision about what to pack.
The obsession with weight set in quickly when my group was presented with this ultralight backpacking challenge. Traditional bushcraft style dictates carrying canvas, wool, and leather kit items on trips—with little to no attention paid to their weight. This trip would challenge those in my group who rely on traditional gear for its rugged construction and durability in the field. Options such as titanium, sil-nylon, and carbon fiber became more viable for this challenge.
The strict maximum of 10 pounds gave me tunnel vision, and all I could think of was how to shave ounces off every individual item I carried. It was a daunting task, but I applied a logical order of thinking and focused on the essentials first. Faced with all the items in my standard load out in front of me, I started from scratch and built my ultralight kit from there. Warning: If you’re looking to go light, it can be costly, as many of my guys found out.
A quality pack is a must for the ultralight hiker. I usually carry a Kifaru Tailgunner and/or a Zulu pack. These heavy-duty, Cordura nylon packs have survived the worst conditions—thanks to their construction—but the tradeoff is weight. Because the weight carried for this particular weekend was 10 pounds and under, I could cut bulk and ultimately, weight, in the suspension and padding. I could also reduce or eliminate lashing points, MOLLE panels and extra compression straps.
In the end, I settled on a very lightweight pack from Outdoor Research called the DryComp Summit Sack. At less than a pound (11 ounces), it has just enough space for my gear and features tabs to run a bungee shock cord through for attaching lightweight gear to the exterior. The Outdoor Research pack is a large rucksack, and I could use lightweight ziptop bags for organization where zippered pockets were cut.
A day hiker should have no trouble packing ultralight, but the weekend backpacker sees pack weight increase once sleeping accoutrements are added to the load out. Given the choice of sleeping pads on the market, the best option is a standard closed-foam mattress such as the Thermarest Ridgerest (14 ounces). This pad insulates from below. A lightweight and small, one-person tarp (in this case, the Snugpack Stasha) protects from the elements above.
Used in conjunction with a silnylon bivy (7.4 ounces) sack, such as those available through Titanium Goat, and a single blanket or quilt, such as the Woobie by Kifaru, sleeping arrangements are covered. At this point, the combined weight of the pack, sleeping pad, small tarp, bivy sack, and blanket totaled slightly more than 4.5 pounds. One of the guys was not willing to sacrifice comfort and wanted to pack his Clark hammock, which, alone, takes up a large chunk of the 10 pounds (but comes with rainfly and bug-free netting).
In addition to shelter components, I pack a lightweight watch cap, gloves, and mosquito head net for sleeping on the ground. With these items, I can protect my hands and head from mosquitos and insects that could otherwise ruin a good night’s sleep. Also, even though the kit is ultralight, these simple comfort items’ value far surpasses their weight.
Regardless of weight, multiple means of making fire should be carried for redundant safety. As a standard, I pack a good ferro rod, along with a lighter and storm-proof matches. In my lightweight kit, the size of the ferro rod, lighter, and container of matches decreases while retaining the ability to make fire—albeit in a lighter and more compact package. Some of the participants noted how, under ideal circumstances, lightweight firestarters accomplish the task but, given the choice, the larger the rod, the better for stress-induced firestarting.
To satisfy the most basic signaling needs, I pack a whistle and mirror in every kit I carry. For ultralight travel, the smallest whistle and mirror combination I could find is made by UST Brands. The StarFlash Micro Mirror and JetScream Micro Whistle together weigh under an ounce and provide peace of mind for emergency communication. A 6-foot length of flagging tape adds under an ounce of additional weight and helps with marking trails and locations. Rounding out our signaling load-outs were our cell phones. Even for EDC, a near-7- ounce phone is essential and effective as a signaling device (when there is cellular service).
More than one Appalachian Trail through-hiker has stated that the only knife he/she carried and needed was a Victorinox Classic. For those unfamiliar with this pocket knife, it is the smallest Swiss Army keychain knife produced. When asked what they used the knife for, each hiker said, “only cutting open freeze-dried food packages.” The Victorinox Classic is a great pocket knife for a keychain and an excellent choice for the weight conscious, but it is a poor substitute for a true field knife meant for any real utility task.
Superlight hikers will opt for a single, hard-backed razor to cut weight even further. The knives we normally carry are difficult to give up in exchange for lighter-weight options. Substantial stock thickness and palm-filling grips give peace of mind when using your knife hard.
To cut weight, I examined the knives I normally carried and looked at the minimal dimensions necessary in the field. I swapped out my full-sized Leatherman 300 multi-tool for a Leatherman Squirt, and my Bark River Bushcrafter was exchanged for the Ultra-light bushcrafter. The full-sized pairing weighs in at 12 ounces, while the ultralight combo is only 6.4 ounces. If I wanted to cut weight even more, my folding neck knife is only 2.7 ounces. Ultralight to heavyweight, a knife is the most important item in your tool kit; and a real knife puts my mind at ease much more than a small pocket knife.
First aid equipment is important in any emergency kit or backcountry load-out. The absoluted, bare-bones ultralight kit is my bandana, adapte from my EDC. Folded like a cravat, it can be use as a pressure bandage, dressing, or sling. In addtion, sample packets of triple antibiotic ointment are widely available, and minor “ouchie-boo-boo” kit items are too light not to pack. Given the exposed nature of ultralight camps, a good insect repellent should be carried, as well.
A word of advice: When pushing your comfort level into the red zone, always designate one person to be in charge of safety and first aid. In this case, one of the participants who hosted the weekend campout is a nurse and former Army medic who laced the trail we hiked with emergency supplies—just in case.
Parachute cord is the gold standard survival cord by which all others are judged. In my ultra-light pack, I reduce the amount of 550 cord and increase the amount of lesser-tensile-strength lines. Around 25 to 50 feet of 550 parachute cord is divided into shorter hanks.
For estimation of weight, remember that 10 feet of paracord weigh 0.8 ounce. A smaller tarp does not need a large space between trees to run a ridgeline; therefore, less cordage in my pack. Simple jute twine is light-weight and can handle just about any ultralight camp lashing task. It also doubles as firemaking tinder if pulled apart and teased into a small bird’s nest. For suspending even lighter gear such as candle lanterns, dental floss is all that is needed.
Water / Cooking
“A pint’s a pound the world around.” This old saying speaks the truth: 16 ounces of water is 1 pound of weight. Water weight cannot be avoided, but the weight of the container can. Titanium is a popular option; I have an ultralight container/cook kit made by Heavy Cover, Inc. Essentially a titanium USGI-style canteen, this container comes complete with a lid to maximize boiling efficiency.
To supplement this, platypus bladders (0.9 ounce) are used, because they are significantly more durable than ziptop bags. Should ziptop bags be the only option available for water storage and transport, always protect their integrity with a spare t-shirt, bandana, or cloth material.
Ultralight camping is not impossible; it just requires more attention to detail and sacrificing some items. Participants from this trip did their research and looked up “seasoned ultralight camper’s” wisdom. My associates followed some of the tips—such as ditching stuff sacks and tent pegs—but didn’t get too obsessive creating toothpaste dots (dried toothpaste portions on waxed paper) and cutting handles off toothbrushes.
Additionally, to sleep warmer, they learned they would likely sacrifice gadgetry (for cooking, lighting, or camp comfort). Also learned: At some point, safety can, but should not, be sacrificed. On our last night, rain came in, and one participant’s lightweight rainwear failed. In cooler weather, this seam failure could result in hypothermia. Again, smaller tools work well in fair weather, but when fingers suffer from lack of dexterity, larger manipulatives are better. Luckily, this trip was held under controlled situations, and even with the rain, we weren’t too far from safety should a real emergency have occurred.
Story by Kevin Estella