Nine skills that will allow you to go lighter

Lost Cost, Alaska. By setting up my camp in this Sitka spruce forest, I was able to safely carry less: a plush sleeping pad was unnecessary due to the soft mossy floor, and I didn't need a traditional 4-season shelter because the trees helped protect my 13-oz tarp from the winds that gusted off the Pacific Ocean all night.

Two years ago my younger sister and her boyfriend went on their first backpacking trip together—a weekend-long summer outing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Based on our shared genealogy, she apparently assumed she’d been blessed with comparable backpacking wisdom as her older brother, so she borrowed some equipment I’d left in my parent’s basement and drove to Pinkham Notch. Like many Trips Gone Bad, she and her fiancé can tell great stories from that experience, including how they tried to keep themselves dry underneath a tarp during a nighttime downpour without having poles or guylines, which they didn’t realize they needed until they arrived at their camp.

A tarp was a poor choice for them—like many pieces of lightweight equipment, it requires a level of skill to properly use, and they didn’t have the know-how. In this post I discuss nine skills you can learn in order to safely carry less and lighter gear on your next trip:

1. Assess your true needs

Where, when and for how long you are going is the primary determinant of the conditions you will encounter: temperatures, precipitation, sun exposure, water availability, snow coverage, hours of daylight, bugs, wildlife, and remoteness.

If you know the conditions you can realistically expect, you can pack accordingly. Uninformed backpackers justify poor gear choices on the grounds of unfounded “What if…” and “Just in case…” scenarios.

2. Select a good campsite

I avoid established campsites whenever possible. Instead I look for a virgin site that:

  • Has a soft bed of natural materials, e.g. pine needles, leaves, moss, tundra;
  • Is not in the very bottom of a drainage, where the air will be colder and more humid, and where the bugs will be more intense; and,
  • Is not near a wildlife travel corridor.

By selecting this type of campsite, I can take a thinner sleeping pad, a lighter sleeping bag and less bug protection, and less robust food protection (e.g. odorproof sacks instead of a bear canister).

3. Minimize food weight

As a long-distance hiker with a ravenous appetite, I love coming up on overloaded backpackers who are delighted to give me some of their extra food. But for your own sake, please don’t feed the thru-hikers! I recommend 3,000 calories per person per day; this equates to about 1.5 pounds, assuming a caloric density of 125 calories/ounce. Some backpackers need more and others need less, but this is a good starting point.

To minimize the weight of these 3,000 calories, eat fatty foods (e.g. chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, cheese, Fritos, and cookies), since fat is 2.4 times as calorically dense as carbs or protein or a given weight, i.e. 240 calories per ounce versus 100.

4. Minimize water weight

In arid environments, water is sometimes worth its weight in gold. Unfortunately it is almost as heavy—it weighs 2 pounds per quart—so don’t carry more than you need. How much do you need?

  1. Determine the distance to your next water source and the time it will take you to reach it.
  2. Recall how much water you have needed in the past for similar stretches.

For example, if it will take me 3 hours to reach the next water source 6 miles away, and I’ve been needing 1 liter every 2 hours, then I will need to carry 1.5 liters with me.

5. Keep down insulation dry, and know when to use it

I generally prefer goose down instead of synthetic insulation—it’s warmer for its weight and more compressible, and it has a longer lifespan. While synthetics are not “warm when wet” like they are sometimes marketed (no outdoor gear is warm when wet, sorry), down is more adversely affected by moisture.

It is easy to protect down against rain and river fords—simply line your pack with a plastic trash compactor bag. (Avoid pack covers, which don’t work, and waterproof stuff sacks, which wear out and are expensive.)

Protecting down against ambient humidity is more challenging. You can use a shelter that has good airflow (e.g. a tarp instead of a stuffy tent) and dry it regularly in the sun or near a fire, but in consistently wet environments like the East and Alaska synthetics are probably a better choice.

6. Use map and compass

People often seem shocked that I don’t carry a GPS, relying instead on old-school paper maps and (sometimes) a $12 baseplate compass. I’m equally shocked that GPS units are so popular. A GPS might tell me exactly where I am, but I can do the same thing by tracking my progress on my maps. And a GPS might tell me the direction and distance to my next waypoint, but I can use my map to figure this out too—and, more importantly, with the map I can identify a route that will avoid thick brush, canyons, extra elevation gain and loss, unpassable passes, and steep side-hilling. A GPS may take me across all of that.

7. Make an alcohol stove

My Fancy Feast Alcohol Stove weighs just .3 oz (10 grams); it has no moving parts; it will never clog; if I step on it, I can bend it back into place and keep using it; and it costs just $1.50 to make—$.50 for the can and $1.00 for the hole punch (grab a plastic bottle from the recycling bin for fuel storage). Alcohol stoves are best for 1-2 people since they do not produce the heat of a canister stove, which is my preferred setup for group and/or winter use, with some exceptions. To use this stove successfully, you will need a windscreen made from aluminum foil and a wide-and-short pot, which is more fuel-efficient than a tall-and-skinny one.

8. Be realistic about in-the-field first aid

There are two categories of first aid situations:

  1. Field treatable, e.g. blisters, headaches, mild diarrhea, small cuts, and anaphylaxis; and,
  2. Not field treatable, e.g. broken bones, HAPE and HACE, anad cardiac arrest.

My first aid kit is designed only to treat the former. I carry ibuprofen and loperamide, Luekotape and duct tape, Krazy Glue, Hydropel, and callus cushions (to take pressure off blisters), among a few other items.

In the very unlikely event something more serious happens, I get resourceful with what I have (closed cell foam pad, guylines, extra clothing, pen knife, etc.) and make a call for help with my SPOT or satellite phone. Even if I carried 50 pounds of medical equipment and was a certified EMT, I’m still not equipped to treat serious medical problems in the field over the long-term.

9. Pitch a tarp

I love tarps: they are ultralight and versatile, and they are less prone to condensation build-up because they have better airflow than conventional double-wall tents or tarptents. I use tarps year-round, even last winter during the Alaska-Yukon Expedition when I was 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Tarps have two main drawbacks:

  1. They do not offer full protection, and
  2. Pitching them is not foolproof.

For protection against groundwater and bugs, I compliment my tarp with a groundsheet, water-resistant bivy, or bug nest—making a “modular tarp” system. To achieve a taut pitch, I do the following: practice in my backyard before I go; use two simple knots—the bowline and the trucker’s hitch; and adjust the shelter 2-3 times after its initial pitch, to get it perfect.

10. Now it’s your turn

What skills do you have that allow you to safely carry less? What did you do before you developed these skills — Did you suffer or did you carry something differently?

69 Responses to Nine skills that will allow you to go lighter

  1. Zack W March 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    The only thing i would add would be to use things that have dual purposes. Like you said duct tape, water pouches for pillows, using pot for cooking and coffee, etc. The more things that have 2 uses the less you have to take.

  2. Bryan March 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    This is such great info Andrew. In addition to my minimal first aid gear. I’ve always carried a solar blanket. It weighs 1.4 ounces and can be used for signaling, heat production, vapor barrier, etc. Check out the 24 essentials that I’ve been hauling for awhile.

  3. tom murphy March 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    1. ability to build a fire under difficult conditions

    2. ability to estimate your present rate of travel and to estimate your probable rate of travel over various terrains

    3. ability to camel up at every water source

    4. ability to judge whether a water source needs to be treated

    5. along with listed map reading and compass use skills, land navigation observation recognition skills, i.e the ability to relate the feature you see to the map in order to fix your present location

    6. confidence, gaining enough experience so that you no longer fear wilderness, please note that respect and fear are not the same

  4. Carl D March 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

    Hey Andrew

    How do you treat anaphylaxis with duct tape? :)

    Actually, I’d recommend taking a first course over saying ‘cut down on first aid gear’.

    Good advice though.

    Cheers

    Carl

  5. Pete March 29, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    Become an amateur hydrologist ;)

    Make note of water sources as you go. Quite often I can come out a lot lighter than I went in, as I know where my water is. Do take note of seasonality affecting water sources. On the way in you tend to be conservative in case the Topo water sources don’t pan out. I carry a Steripen – sure it’s constant weight, but it also means I carry a lot less water on average. Route planning – don’t be afraid to go slightly longer if it takes you past water sources. I really love walking up/down rivers/streams or in an area with a lot of small waterfalls or contributing streams as I just drink as I go and carry no water at all. When you are near a good source in the morning – pre-hydrate. Drink a litre and a half as you pack up and get ready to go. By the time you’re ready to leave, you’ll be busting for a pee because you’re overloaded already. That can keep you going for a long time, but you should try to have small maintenance sips as you go. Once it is inside you, it doesn’t weigh anything! ;) At the end of the day, taper off your drinking, unless you want to be up all night peeing. Do be careful to re-hy any dehy food properly. If you eat partially rehydrated food, you’ll wake up like a dry sponge the next morning! Well, those are my experiences. Reddit says “hi”.

  6. Sanky Wankpo March 29, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    Encouraging people to avoid established campsites at all times really isn’t in line with minimum-impact camping principles. If everyone does this, it’s just going to create greater amounts of impact in the long run, which means that resource managers are going to have to implement tougher and stricter regulations in an attempt to bring those unacceptable impacts back under control… and if there’s one thing backpackers hate, it’s strict regulations that dictate what they can and cannot do.

    I wouldn’t go so far to say that everyone should always camp at established sites at all times, but backpackers need to realize what is at stake when they choose to camp at a non-established site, and make sure they have the knowledge and ability to significantly limit their impacts while camped there.

    • Andrew Skurka March 30, 2012 at 12:42 am #

      This an excellent point, and represents a perspective that I has lost some due to traveling solo in very wild places. If you are with a Scout troop, college group, NOLS, etc. and really plan to “camp,” consider the effect that will have on the environment. If it will be obvious that a large group camped there, consider a more heavily used site — and carry an air mattress.

    • kevin December 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

      Just follow the “leave no trace” principals. this is our planet to enjoy not the governments to decide how we should enjoy it.

    • Irongator76 January 6, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      Thanks for that comment.
      But here’s idea…consider a hammock.
      My group does and our impact upon virgin campsites is almost nonexistent. You really can’t even tell we were there. Of course, always use straps instead of ropes to secure the hammock to a tree.

  7. Jonah March 29, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    Straight to the point:
    ditch the snakebite kit, its proven not to be worth the time risk
    ditch the large hunting knife, use a multi-tool
    ditch the big plastic trowel, use your hands/feet/sticks/stones
    ditch the heavy rock climbing rope, use paracord
    ditch unnecessary pots and plates, stick with one for cooking/eating or consider the plastic sheets that fold and snap into bowls
    ditch a full set of utensils, use 1 plastic or titanium spork
    bring a scrub pad both for scrubbing pots and cleaning your water filter

    • Walter Underwood May 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      ditch the multi-tool, carry a tiny Swiss Army knife
      ditch the paracord, you won’t use it
      ditch the water filter, carry Aqua Mira

      I use an SMC Sno-Stake as a trowel. It is a good stake for sandy soil and both stronger and lighter than a plastic trowel.

    • Ben W March 2, 2014 at 3:50 am #

      Might be different in other countries, but here in Australia you’d be borderline insane to head out on the trails in most areas without a decent pressure bandage for dealing with snakebite. I agree that there’s only so much first aid kit a hiker can actually use, but a good compression/pressure bandage is one of them. Has saved many a life.

  8. Pete B. March 29, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Use hiking poles.

    Not so much a direct weight savings, since you add the weight of the poles, but I’ve found that I was able to switch to much lighter footwear (I hike in my Vibram Five Fingers when I’m going on a weekend in the Provincial parks). I wear trail runners on longer hikes, where before I was constrained to a full-cut boot, due to weak ankles. It’s been a compound benefit because now my ankles have gained muscle from using a minimalist shoe.

    You mentioned in your book the compound benefit of ligher footwear (I liken it to unsprung v. sprung weight on a car), and being someone who wears a size 13EE, I have definitely noticed an improvement in my overall hiking experience. My knees and hips suffer less fatigue, with less weight on my feet, and my stride is quickened because my legs aren’t getting as tired. I can hike longer, faster, and more sure-footedly. The trade off? A few ounces in each hand.

  9. Fiona March 30, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    Why do you say pack covers don’t work? Do they leak through the material or around it? I’ve never had a problem.

    • Andrew Skurka March 30, 2012 at 12:38 am #

      Both. In prolonged storms, water will absorb into the pack via the backpad, which is not protected by a pack cover. And over time “waterproof” pack cover fabrics stop being waterprooof, due to UV, abrasion, etc

      • Eric August 8, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

        I’ve heard this advice often, but haven’t really been convinced. Without a simple and lightweight pack cover wouldn’t the fabric of your pack absorb the rain? It seems like I might end up carrying more weight in wet gear with the inner-trashbag system than I would be with a light pack cover.

        I understand that if I’m fording a river or falling into one that’s a different story. What do you think? How am I thinking about this wrong?

        • Andrew Skurka August 9, 2013 at 10:05 am #

          The concern about the pack’s fabric absorbing water used to be true, but today’s pack fabrics absorb very little water, if any — most of them are coated (with polyurethane or silicone) and are made of nylon, a fiber that absorbs very little water.

          • Eric August 18, 2013 at 10:50 am #

            Thanks for the note!

  10. Steve March 30, 2012 at 3:39 am #

    Learn to packraft.

    Skurka’s in on the game we Alaskans are playing, and you should be too. Though the gear weight is going to total at least 10 pounds (without a dry suit), packrating is a phenomenal way to diversify your adventure if floatable waterways are within in your area of travel. Plus, any distance you paddle down a creek or river is that much less mileage you have to carry your pack. Whether the water’s clam & lazy or remote & crazy, learning the basic skills of packrafting doesn’t take much time to master, offers inordinate amounts of fun….and the gear can even pull double duty for shelter & sleeping purposes.

  11. isawtman March 31, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    I wonder if buying lighter gear would be considered
    a skill? But after you buy it you have to know how to
    use it, so maybe. My biggest weight savings came
    when I bought lighter big three items: tent, backpack
    and sleeping bag. Now those three items combined
    are less weight than my old tent.

    • Charlie April 3, 2012 at 7:55 am #

      I think ultimately, buying lighter gear is the last step in developing a lighter pack. You obviously think carefully about tailoring your gear choices for specific trips/climates/seasons, as not all choices work for all things.

      One has to first examine the current pack’s contents to see what is redundant or unnecessary. Those of us without a lot of disposable income can still take away great lessons from the ultralighters out there, and as gear wears out, it can then be replaced with lighter options.

      I also appreciate Sanky Wankpo’s nod to minimising impact of travel. Leave-No-Trace is an international organisation that established 10 Principles of ethical travel through the wilderness. If you aren’t already familiar with the concepts, you can find them here http://www.leavenotrace.ca/principles. Some priciples might surprise you!

  12. Thetentman April 4, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    One of the ways I save weight is switching from shorts and underwear to just a bathing suit with a liner. Drys fast and is very light. This also eliminates the need for a belt.

    • Andrew Skurka April 4, 2012 at 8:13 am #

      I concur with this system, though I recommend running shorts since they are generally made with materials that are friendlier to skin, e.g. soft polyester instead of rough nylon.

  13. pinetree April 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    I agree with everything except “avoid established campsites.” While it certainly offers options to use lighter gear, making your pack lighter by making your impact heavier is a really selfish thing to do. If there are established campsites, use them.

    • Andrew Skurka April 4, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

      Kindly disagree here.

      After I leave most camps in the morning you would have a hard time proving that I had in fact camped there at all. Maybe you would notice that a few pine cones had been moved or some grass had been flattened, but the landscape will look completely natural again very quickly.

      That said, individuals or groups who plan to “camp hard” should definitely be more cognizant of their potential impact. However, I’m not sure what’s worse — heavily used camps that end up having to be closed, or lightly used but more scattered camps.

  14. Erik Dietz April 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    What do you look for to avoid camping near a wildlife travel corridor?

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka April 5, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

      Game trails, scat, footprints.

      Also avoid good wildlife habitat, like huckleberry patches.

  15. Peter April 7, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    i just ordered your book. I am looking for info on selecting and pitching tarp tents. how do you keep the tent from getting your bag wet in your pack? and how do you keep the sleeping pad from getting stuff dirty also? do you have separate bags? I do, but I am not ultralight either….

    • Andrew Skurka April 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

      If I need to store my tarp wet, I keep it outside my plastic pack liner, but inside my pack. Other hikers store it in an outside mesh pocket.

      When I use a tarp, I normally compliment it with additional pieces that offer more environmental protection. A bivy sack or bug nest, for example, will protect me from ground water and bugs. If I’m using a full-sided mid tarp and don’t need bug protection, I will just use a ground sheet, like Polycro from Gossamer Gear, or I’ll lay down my packraft.

      • Peter April 10, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

        Thanks for the tips. I appreciate your willingness to help out!

      • Beth April 23, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

        Is a tarp appropriate for White Mountain backpacking in summer (could your sister have successfully used it if she’d had the experience?) My focus is going to be the white mtns where rain is guaranteed, sunshine is not. severe snow storms have happened in every month of the year in the WMNF, New Hampshire (recommend Not Without Peril). So, do I buy a tarp and, if so, what else as part of an ultra light system?

        I own and have read your book – it’s really great. thanks.

        • Andrew Skurka April 24, 2012 at 9:56 am #

          Personally, I would use a tarp system in the White Mountains without hesitation. The rainfly offers tremendous coverage area for minimal weight. And I could get ground and bug protection via a bug nest or water-resistant bivy. Total weight of about 20 oz, and it’s as full-service as a conventional 3-season double-wall tent. A additional perk of this system is that, if I camp in the lean-to’s, I can easily set up my bivy or my bug nest inside, whereas backpackers who have a tent either: have no bug protection while inside the lean-to (good luck sleeping with bugs biting you), have to set up their tent inside the lean-to (not very considerate), or have to carry an additional piece of equipment (like a bivy or bug nest!) that they can use in the lean-to.

          Concern over “severe snow storms” in the summer months is unrealistic. If it were to snow — which is certainly possible but unlikely — the snow would not stick and it’d probably be confined only to the highest elevations, where you should have the sense to not be camping anyway if the weather looks like it might get bad.

          • Beth April 25, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

            Damn, lost my reply. I just keep it to “thanks”.

  16. Dana April 9, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    while I’ll agree there is a good wealth of know-how here, I’d also disagree on the waterproof stuff sack issue. Mine is 3+ yrs old and going strong- when I see signs of wear I’ll surely replace it. I could (and have) dunked it in the bathtub for testing. I’m ok with its 1.3 ounces of weight. How long does a trash compactor bag last, and how do I close it? surely not 3 yrs.
    I once read a tip to use a turkey oven bag- it blew out just from me trying to get my sleeping bag in it at home packing for the trip, so I scratched that idea and stick with what I know.

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

      I don’t know of a 1.3-oz waterproof stuff sack that would stay waterproof for 3 years. My experience with a sil-nylon pack liner was that it was reliabilty waterproof for only about 4 weeks, and then I had to start protecting it with a trash compactor bag. It’s pretty easy to completely seal a compactor bag — just twist it shut and cinch it in place. In most precipitation, just shingling the edges works fine.

      I usually replace the trash compactor bags about once a month. They cost less than a dollar each, or about 1/30th the cost of a sil-nylon stuff sack.

      Agree on turkey bags — “stupid light” idea, I think, as they are not nearly durable enough.

      • Jess July 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

        I’ve had really good luck with the event stuff sacks, but they aren’t light. I’ve swam rivers using them for flotation with my down sleeping bag inside and had the sleeping bag come out bone dry though. (This is after the stuff sack had several hundreds of miles on it.)

        I agree that the nylon stuff sacks are useless though. I’ve taken to calling them damp sacks.

      • Fred June 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

        ZPacks offers 2 versions of a waterproof cuben roll-top stuff sack that weigh 1.2 and 1.3 oz respectively. They both hold over 12 litres (one holds my down winter bag, underquilt, flash jacket, long underwear, etc. and the other is made for bear bagging food). They may not last Andrew Skurka 3 years of daily/constant use, but most anyone else should get outstanding longevity with a little care. I believe they still cost under $30. My food bag has survived many nights in the back country and looks the same as the day it arrived a couple of years ago.

    • Andrew J May 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

      Purchase a waterproof stuff sack from REI as a member and get an instant satisfaction guarantee (lifetime warranty).

  17. Peter April 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    Okay, a tip on lightening up I use that I don’t know why no one else does is using a filter straw for water. out of a cup or straight from the source and less than 10 bucks and they are in every store…

  18. David April 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    What are your thoughts on hammocks? I’m planning to ditch the double-walled tent this year and am considering either a tarp or hammock. I haven’t (yet) read your book, but I haven’t heard you mention nor write about hammocks at all on this site. I’m curious if you’ve ruled it out the way you logically rule out other things like canister stoves and GPS. Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka April 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

      I have no personal experience with hammocks, though I’m hoping to change that this Spring. I have heard wonderful things about them, especially in warmer climates. I recently read an excellent book about hammocks, http://theultimatehang.com. Personally, I sleep well on the ground and don’t seem to struggle to find good campsites, so I expect to still be a tarp guy, but I’d like to at least be more familiar with it.

    • Zenith April 13, 2012 at 7:49 am #

      If you’re considering buying a hammock, I’d definitely recommend trying one before you dive in and commit to buying one. The other members of my family who also hike love them, but for some reason I just can’t get comfy in them. The concept is great, but definitely a personal preference thing!

    • Steve Ray November 20, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      I bought into the hammock thing in spring 2011 right before a backpacking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness because I have never slept well on the ground. I like that I’m not sleeping on hard ground, but contrary to the maker’s claim that you can sleep on your side in this hammock, I have not been able to accomplish that, and end up on my back all night “catnapping”.
      I’m about ready to bite the bullet and buy a Thermarest NeoAir XLite and a tarp tent and try that route.

      • Jim Milstein December 4, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

        Consider also the Exped Synmat UL 7. It sleeps very comfortably and warm. The fabric is quieter than that of the NeoAir Xlite, too. I think it’s a bit heavier, though.

  19. Rocky April 13, 2012 at 12:01 am #

    First aid: Take a full-length Wilderness First Responder course, typically 10 days long. NOLS/WMI teaches them all over the country, so do others. Renew every 2 years to keep your rarely used skills sharp.

    You will learn to recognize serious situations and do the best you can even when help is days away.

    Yes, you will ultimately need doctors and hospitals to deal with “broken bones, HAPE and HACE, and cardiac arrest”, but you need to know what to do until better help arrives. Even with a sat phone, no helicopter can pick you up if the storm is still raging. And a sat phone might be dead when you need it most.

    BTW, the definition of “wilderness” first aid is 1 hour or more from more skilled care. That’s true at many trailheads before you start walking down the trail.

  20. Rocky April 13, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Learn the limits of your body, your skills, and your gear. You learn by pushing those limits on shorter trips closer to civilization. Deliberately plan trips for lousy weather, close to home. Challenge yourself by taking the hard route, not the easy one.

    By knowing your limits, you’ll be more confident, you will enjoy your trips more, and you’ll stay safer.

  21. hamster May 5, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    Andrew,

    Without a bivy, how did you prevent your sleeping bag from being wet during the winter phase of the Yukon-Alaska Expedition?

    • Andrew Skurka May 7, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

      I didn’t use a bivy during the winter portion of that trip; see the gear list, partly for that reason, but mostly because it was made unnecessary by my full-sided shelter.

  22. Opusxm May 9, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    I have been using my Clark Hammock for 3 years. I truly love it. I’m able to sleep on my side and enjoy not being on the ground. That being said, I do most of my backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, and I have a hard time staying warm. I have been working on ways to insulate it, but the lightest way I have found has been a thin closed cell ground pad. My weight is a little less than my tarp, Big Agnes air pad, bivy and groundsheet. I have spent several nights where it has rained, snowed, hailed, and was glad I was off the ground.The other obvious problem is I have to be down below tree line.
    As I debate this setup, I have come to the conclusion that it is perfect for hot humid trails, ie the AT, and would probably recommend the Clark or the Hennessy, but once it turns cold be prepared to change set ups. As for the Sierra, I am a short stocky guy, if I could find a short but wider air pad (like the Big Agnes insulated) I would probably move back to the ground. Hey, I’m 47, those thin pads just don’t cut it anymore.

    • Irongator76 January 6, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

      For cool or cold weather camping with a hammock, try using the Insulation System made by Hennessy.

      It attaches to and hangs about 1/2″ under their hammocks and includes a thin open cell hammock-shaped very pliable foam pad. This configuration of just an undercover and an underpad adds 3/4 pound.

      Hennessy also sells a thicker hammock-shaped underpad and an overcover for extreme cold weather camping.

  23. anti May 14, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    great sharing of knowledge and learning…
    will disagree on “NOTHING keeps you warm when wet”…
    ahhh, since man has been clothing themselves we have used animal furs/skins hence WOOL.
    yes. kicked out of packs for years due to it’s additional weight, merino and alpaca(lighter than merino and twice as warm/water shedding) are bringing wool back into even the most annoying granola yuppie’s packs…
    and if you calculate leaving other pieces behind you will balance out about the same amount of weight carried with something warm,breathable, nonstinky,bombproof,repairable,fireproof(can sleep right next to fire in survival or recreation),cozy and comfy(which is great psychologically)…
    you won’t meet people that would give up their wool they use out in the bush and most bushcrafters swear by it especially in the northern woods and latitudes…
    with it becoming so much lighter you may also switch your bag or quilt for a nice wool blanky which is sooo versatile and can be worn as a poncho…
    great for sleeping as you can ventilate or wrap up to your liking…
    and you can pack A LOT of your gear rolled up in it…
    yes i have gore-tex and fleece but deeply love my ibex piece which is oider (they don’t do the technical stuff like they used to) and my tibetan pullover…
    people have been wearing it and sleeping with it for thousands of years…
    i don’t argue with those who live with the land and its environments.

    note: i’d prefer to walk through the bush with my wool on rather than shred a goretex jacket with one wrong move on a branch.

    • Andrew Skurka May 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

      I agree that wool, especially merino wool, is a great fiber. Based on the success of wool-centric companies, it seems like many others also agree. However:

      1. Wool is not a miracle fiber. It has pros, cons, limitations, and optimal uses, like every other material out there. It absorbs more water than fleece, for example, and it’s not as warm for its weight as a parka insulated with down or synthetic fill.

      2. Wool is not warm when wet. It may be warmer when wet than, say, a polyester or nylon base layer shirt. But a wet wool garment will not be as warm as a dry wool garment. Period. It’s just basic physics: water is much more thermally conductive than air, so a wet garment will rob more body heat than a dry garment will.

      • Marius Ciesiolka August 1, 2012 at 8:15 am #

        Hello Andrew. I kinda dissagree and agree with two points.

        As you probably know, it’s not the material that keeps you warm, it’s the air trapped inside. So if the material is wet, depending on how the fibres are structured, there may still be air to keep you warm.

        However there’s still the wet material to conduct the cold, and wet fabric will cool the trapped air faster. So I agree that no fabric will be as warm wet, as it would be dry. But it would still be warm to some extent.

        In my humble experience my fleece, paired with a windjacket, always kept me warm even when wet and windy.

        Thank you for your inspiration. Kind regards.

  24. Atomikchicken June 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    I think some terminology clarification is in order. In the Army we have two terms and plan according to which term applies. We are the original LNT. Trace means you can be followed and ambushed, not the way we want to go out of the fight.

    Camping: indicates a substantial group or amount of activity. Gathering water, cooking, cleaning and, maintaining gear all require movement.

    Bivouac: is a site selected for the purpose of rest and recuperation before moving on and by its nature less disturbing to the environment. Water is procured on-the-go and gear malfunctions are address at the point of failure and food is selected for ease of preparation.

  25. Karen June 10, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    What’s your opinion of Tyvek as your tarp-tent material? Would you opt for something else and, if so, why?

    • Andrew Skurka June 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

      I have little experience with Tyvek for backpacking applications. I think it’s pretty heavy, and I don’t think it offers much in the way of water resistance, durability, or packability versus standard shelter fabrics, e.g. sil-nylon, spinnaker, cuben.

  26. Daniel June 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    A picture of your alcohol stove and a few trial and errors setups of your tarp and ground sheet would really be appreciated.

  27. Larry July 15, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    I tried out the catfood can stove last week during a 7 day trip in the White MTs. Worked great. Since I was hiking with 3 friends we beefed up the windscreen by using aluminum flashing instead of aluminum foil. Cannot say enough about the benefits of using this cooking system. Thanks!

    Also, if you can find a hammock that is comfortable to you, and you’re not camping in cold weather or above the treeline, I highly recommend it. With a 9×9 tarp, some paracord, and my Byers hammock with built in bug net, I slept like a baby and carried a pound and a half less than my friends that brought tents. This also saves a lot of pack space.

    **another bonus of hammock camping in the whites: if you’re camping cheaply and following the WMNF regulations you need to camp 200 feet off a trail and away from a water source, and a quarter mile away from established (pay to camp) sites. The terrain here is dense, steep, and wet enough that there it can be difficult to find a tentable site. With a hammock steep, heavily forested, wet terrain isn’t AS MUCH of an issue.

    Also tried the trash compactor bags on the same trip, and after using regular garbage bags and pack covers, I can say that I am now totally a convert and devoted to the world of the compactor bag.

    Thanks for the tips and keeping the weight down.

    * I work construction and have been bringing the catfood stove to work all this week to make coffee on my break. Sweet.

  28. Mike Clelland November 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    This is good stuff. I agree with everything you’ve said.

    I would add that *care of equipment* is a skill.

    This basically mean, be careful with your stuff. THere is a perception that UL gear is flimsy and will fall apart. I have a lot of “flimsy” gear that has served me well and continues to serve me well.

    I can carry lighter load because I an kind to each and every item.

    A 6.3 oz Lexan Nalgene water bottle is sturdy and will take a beating. A 1.6 oz platypus looks flimsy, and it you aren’t careful – it is flimsy. I have platypus bottles that have lasted over 5 years, and they still keep on working.

    • Steve December 4, 2012 at 12:20 am #

      Those Platypus bottles are not as flimsy as you might suspect. Two summers ago I unintentionally ran one over with an ATV when it was near full with water…and by that I mean I watched it fall out of my pack’s side pocket, right onto the ground in the direct path of the rear left wheel, with no reaction time quick enough to swerve & miss it. I thought it was done for, but those things are built pretty well. It was like nothing had happened.

  29. Don January 12, 2013 at 6:58 am #

    I would like to make a handy suggestion especially for those who hike in some of the colder regions: Carry an empty “Gatorade” bottle with you. The way you use it is that you take it into your sleeping bag and fill it during the night instead of exiting your warm sleeping bag for some midnight relief. Simply pour out the contents in the morning in a responsible manner.

  30. Mike Kiernan May 27, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Andrew,

    I used a trash compactor bag for a season then swithced to a SeaToSummit UltrSil Pack liner (http://www.amazon.com/Sea-Summit-Ultra-Sil-Pack-Liner/dp/B000OY6LM8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1369674328&sr=8-1&keywords=sea+to+summit+pack+liner). This has worked well for 2 seasons but I have not been out for more than 2 weeks at a stretch with it.

    The main advantages are:
    1. it is a bit bigger
    2. closes more securely
    3. can be used as a hanging bear bag

    After reading your comment, I am a bit worried about durability. Your thoughts?

    Thanks for all the tips.

    Mike

    • Andrew Skurka May 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

      If you really need to keep the contents of your pack dry in bad conditions, a dry sack with roll-top closure is the way to go. When might you need this level of protection? I’m thinking of a splashy section of whitewater in a packraft. Otherwise, I struggle to make the argument that a true dry sack is the way to go, especially since over time the lighter weight “waterproof” fabrics will lose their waterproofness and will start to leak.

      For most backpacking trips, my experience is that a trash compactor bag works just fine. It’s very waterproof, easily replaceable, and cheap.

  31. Jeff Pizzo October 11, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    You carry leukotape and duct tape, but I do not see any details on how you store and carry tape, based on the length of your trip.

    How much tape would you bring for one week? Both kinds of tape are heavy if you take the whole roll. I’ve heard some people use “sticker paper” and put the tape on the paper. What is the best way to carry smaller amounts of Duct and Leukotape?

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka October 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      Duct tape can be re-rolled. A 3-ft length does not weight much and has always been enough for a 1-week stretch between resupplies for me; it’s cheap enough that I can send a new roll in every drop.

      Leukoetape cannot be re-rolled without compromising its adhesivness. So I place 12-inch strips on discarded mailing label paper, then fold them up a few times to pack smaller. The amount you need depends on your anticipated needs. If you have chronic blisters, I would take 2 feet for a 1-week trip, maybe 3. If you never have issues, a 12-inch strip should be fine; you may not need it, but it does not weigh much either and is worth having.

  32. Ken November 15, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    I’m with you on not being fond of a GPS in the woods. I’ve been out twice with folks who used them and they failed us. My compass brought us home.
    This summer my wife and I were hiking in Wayne National Forest and on an indistinct trail guess what we found? Someones GPS.
    Use a GPS if you like, but always back it up with a compass.

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