Send any comments to the maintainer Roger Caffin
"The reasonable man seeks to change himself to fit in with the world.
Only the unreasonable man seeks to change the world to suit himself.
Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
I can be very unreasonable at times....
Like many of us, I too started out with heavy gear - ex army stuff in the early 60s. Better gear was lighter, but around SW Tassie in the late 60s I was still carrying 30 kg. I had to sit down, put the pack straps over my shoulders, and then struggle to my feet. My friends help pull me up. More recently I was still carrying 18-20kg for a "light" week-long trip. However, this all got to be too much. I started to really consider how to reduce the weight of my load. It turned out that others had been here before me, with two major lessons.
The first lesson was to really question what you need in the bush. Sure, there are so many neat things in the bushwalking shops which you could buy, but most of them are there to make money for the inventors and the shop rather than help you enjoy walking. It does require a significant mind-shift to focus on what you can throw out or reduce, rather than on consumption and buying all the latest "status symbols". The second lesson was that the gear many of us are using today is quite old, built on technology from 20 or 30 years ago. There are far lighter and better ways of designing and making gear today, if only you look. What was also interesting was that the legendary acts of cutting handles off toothbrushes and bits off pack straps and so on are not part of this. In fact, the weight you save with those ideas is too small (at this stage) to be significant.
Some of these ideas get a hostile reception from some walkers: "XYZ is NO GOOD!". That's understandable: they have been taught this by others, and by the deluge of advertising we cop all the time. Criticise what they do and they feel threatened. But if you are just uncertain, remember this: many of us ARE using this gear, and ARE doing a lot of trips with it. In fact, my wife and I average well over one hundred days per year in the bush with this gear, so these ideas are not just a dream.
However, there is a warning with some of these changes: gear designed for WW II is going to be more robust than Ultra-Lightweight gear designed for bushwalking. UL gear will wear out, or break if you are too rough or careless. And if you pursue the UL path, you will be reducing part of your safety margin as well. On the other hand, the lighter load allows you to travel farther, faster and with less risk of an accident. This is fine for the experienced walker who probably knows just how far he can push him(her)self, but it is not recommended for the novice.
So, lets explore what can be done for Australian conditions. Note that I will describe what I have done, not what you should do: that's your responsibility. For American conditions (and tastes) you might like to read a summary of a Backpacker article I came across. The gear is interesting, but their idea of food is a trifle weird. I mean, mashed potato for breakfast? Or smoked mussels, stuffing, couscous and pine nuts for dinner? Really wierd!
You will need some gear if you are going to enjoy walking. You could survive with even less, but this is a hobby, not an endurance test. The following is a simplified check list I use for trips around NSW not in the middle of winter, with comments about the items. Weights are in grams. Obviously, the second person does need all of this gear.
|Item||Old gm||New gm||Comments|
|Pack||2600||800||New materials, not designed for 90L|
|Tent (summer)||3500||1200||New materials, not designed for Mt Everest|
|Sleeping bag||1700||550||Summer weight, not snow use|
|Sleeping mat||880||880||Deluxe 5 cm Thermarest: I spend all night on it|
|Parka||870||190||Skip the GoreTex: light silnylon poncho/pack-cover|
|Overtrousers||510||0||Not needed in summer|
|Jumper||710||260||Adequate, not Polarfleece 300 in summer|
|Boots||2000||330||You just don't need boots|
|Stove||570||90||Skip the liquid fuel, go with gas|
|Cooking gear||500||230||Single bowl rather than several|
|First aid, repair||700||200||Never used most of it anyhow|
|Water bottles||250||45||Large PET bottles, at $0 each|
|Camera||2500||500||A good digital|
|Totals||17290||5275||Difference: 12.055 kg|
|Total for two||26660||8195||Difference: 18.465 kg|
How much of this is real? ALL of it! We (my wife and I) really have taken that much off the weight off our packs, just by changing materials and perceptions of what we need. In fact, we have removed more than that, but the individual amounts were getting smaller. We'll look at some of the major items in some detail below. First however a general comment: some (not all!) of this lighter gear is also a lot cheaper. You may not get a lot of encouragement from some gear shops over this: they aren't going to make as much money out of cheaper gear. Fortunately not all shops take that attitude. Of course, not buying unnecessary gear is even cheaper (and lighter). Sad to say, some of it is expensive and very hard to get at this stage.
What is also interesting is that the amount of food we have to carry has gone down by one or two days worth: we are travelling so much faster we take less time for the distance. What you do with this is another matter: in practice it lets us do longer trips. Which is the final aim, after all.
The traditional bushwalking pack is made of canvas, holds 70-80-90 litres, and weighs a ton. Do you really need this for a two day walk? For much of my summer walking I now use a synthetic pack with a capacity of about 60 L and weighing about 800 g. I made it myself.
"But what if it isn't big enough?" Well, then I look seriously at what I am taking, and how it is packed. After all, a 60 L pack is meant to be able to hold 60 kg of water, which is far more mass than you want. It isn't a volume problem: it is a density problem. Improve the way you pack your gear, or take better gear with a smaller volume. Or take less excess gear. (But don't rush out and buy a UL pack and expect to get all your conventional gear in it! That doesn't work!)
"But what if it leaks - all synthetics leak, don't they?". It turns out that conventional modern synthetic fabrics do not leak until very seriously worn out. The stitching may leak after a while - but so does the stitching on many canvas packs. You can seam-seal a synthetic pack with either PU "goo" or silastic, or tape the seams. Anyhow, the simplest solution for both sorts of packs is the same: a pack cover weighing maybe 50 gm. A better solution is to use a synthetic fabric which is both light and totally waterproof. The best solution is to also use plastic bags inside waterproof nylon stuff-sacks for your food and clothing.
"But the synthetic fabric is lighter - what if it rips?". Well, even canvas packs resort to synthetic Cordura reinforcing on the high wear places like the bottom. Canvas just can't hack it as well as the right synthetics. So why not skip the canvas and just use the Cordura for the whole pack? Or how about a Cordura bottom and a slightly lighter fabric for the rest, and treat the pack with a little more care? Some American UL packs are made with modern synthetic silicone-impregnated fabrics ('silnylon') which have half the weight of a standard 70 denier tent fly material, or about 45 gm/sq m (1.6 oz vs "12 oz canvas"). And they work, at least on their trails. Even a 100 gm/sqm fabric would be very light in comparison. However, I would recommend a little more caution in scrub or lawyer vine country.
"But the lighter packs don't have such a good harness". Well, with a lighter pack you don't need such a huge harness. Anyhow, mine seems fine for the lighter loads, so maybe that's just another myth put about by the vendors of heavy packs with complex harnesses? Actually, when you see the complexity of some of the commercial harnesses, you have to wonder what fundamental defect they are trying to fix with all that stuff. And by the way, I have carried over 24 kg with that 800 g pack while walking in with skis and boots on one winter snow trip. That's quite enough weight for most trips.
The weights listed come from my ultra-lightweight pack project. I thought it should be possible to get the weight of the pack down to about 1 kg: it turned out that I could get the first prototype down to 570 gm, although that design went a bit too far in some ways. The fabrics were too light for the Wollemi scrub and jungle. I ended up with an H-frame pack at about 800 grams which does handle lawyer vines and the rest. The full story is detailed in the Packs page of the MyDesigns section.
If you look at most of the internal frame packs we use in Australia you will find they have a sturdy "internal frame". This frame is actually derived from the design of an alpine pack meant for climbing. Very glamorous of course. A pity no-one asked whether the design was suitable for bushwalking first. What happened to the H-frame packs like the "Mountain Mule"? I think they just went out of fashion, although they were a bit too wide and short in practice. Certainly, the H-frame concept is still used in America, and especially for heavy loads. My 35 kg pack in Tassie had an external H-frame. I interpret all this to mean that the current preoccupation with large internal frame packs is just a bad case of follow-the-leader, without very much thought being applied. A pity. See also the Pack Theory pages.
Can you keep the pack shape without a frame? Not entirely. You can fold up your foam mat or Thermarest and put it at the back of the pack to make a sort-of soft frame for the rest of the pack. Then you pack it with some thought, so it keeps its shape. Alternately, you let your foam mat spring out to make an inner wall inside your pack, and put everything else inside that. One extreme method used in America lines the pack with the mat, stuffs the sleeping bag inside that, then pokes everything else into the sleeping bag. The pack always looks full; just the density changes. This approach does have some disadvantages however. The first is that you end up with a pack like a ball, and this places the load a long way from your back. This is still poor design, even if it is ultra-light. The second problem is that I am not sure I want to treat my sleeping bag like that, and what happens if it rains? A wet sleeping bag is very likely. Finally, consider our Australian scrub. When you go through some of our more spiky scrub with one of these American silnylon packs lined with your airmat and the spiky stuff stabs through the skin of the pack, just what is going to cop it? Yep, your air mat! By the first evening it will be leaking faster than you can blow it up. You see, this concept was developed for American trails in open pine forests.
The design I have ended up with is shown here. It has an H-frame as shown in the Packs page of the MyDesigns section, and the bag uses some new fabrics designed to be waterproof and dimensionally stable, specifically for packs. I started with a two-compartment design so as to keep the tent and other wet gear at the bottom, even (or especially) in wet weather. However, that made the main compartment too short for air mats and tent poles, so I have switched to a single-compartment design. The tent now goes under the lid, after the rest of the pack has been filled. This is good in the rain of course. It comes in both summer and winter versions, of about the same weight. The winter version is slightly larger to accommodate a larger 4-season tent and extra clothing for ski touring. Actually, few would need the larger version.
These designs have spent a lot of time in Wollemi, travelling along several rivers and over several ranges, and in the Pyrenees. They work very well, with the load wrapped snugly around my back and leaving me with very good balance. The weight is typically about 800g. Mutli-kilogram monsters are a thing of the past, although dinosaurs take a long time to die.
A similar story plays out here. I ran through a number of prototypes before I reached a satisfactory design. I admit, I had a lot of fun with all the different fabric possibilities along the way. Key requirements were that the tent have good ventilation, be totally insect proof and totally waterproof, be self-supporting, have a sewn-in groundsheet and have generous room for one or two people to actually live in for a bad evening - or day. This is quite different from some tents which are designed to be solely a 'lie down' shelter. The lightest summer design turned out to be a single-skin one with two poles, although I do now also have a 3-pole version for rougher weather. The winter or 4-season one had to have a double-skin with at least three poles. The latest and favoured version actually has four carbon fibre poles. The single skin two-man tent weighs about 1.2 kg in silnylon with carbon fibre poles and pegs, as listed above. Far more details are given in the Tents page of the MyDesigns section. The current versions have good headroom, good ventilation and are totally waterproof, as well as having enough room for two people to 'live' in them. What all this really illustrates is that you do not need the heavy tents of previous generations.
Why the emphasis on good ventilation? Because the ultra-lightweight silnylon fabrics do not breathe at all, so a tent which is all closed up will get condensation on the inside on a cold night. It may also collect carbon monoxide if you cook inside it fully sealed up. This has happened elsewhere, but it can't happen with my designs. Why generous room? Because in bad weather you have to be inside this tent for a long time, cook in it, relax in it, and be able to get at all your gear in it. The little 'two-man pop-ups' are simply not good enough. In addition, having generous room also means some height. Some minimalist designs have the roof low to the ground, but this means your sleeping bag will probably brush against the roof and get wet on a cold night. Phooey to that. It could be argued that the silnylon is too waterproof and this causes the condensation. The physics doesn't work that way. (A note re EPIC fabric: reports are that it leaks after a while under heavy rain, with a fine spray.) Anyhow, we get some severe rainstorms sometimes, and I prefer to be able to rely on the tent being waterproof. And on those humid nights when dew is forming due to cooling air, we get lots more condensation on the outside of the tent. On the other hand, the silicone-impregnated fabric has the enormous advantage that it does not absorb any water. Normal PU-proofed nylon does absorb a lot of water on the unproofed side, so a wet tent is a heavy tent. Give the silicone stuff a shake and it is (almost) dry. Now that is a real benefit: your pack stays light after rain. See the DIY section for more details of these tents.
The first version of the 4-season design is shown to the left, in 'slightly' bad weather. The inner tent will completely exclude insects, driving snow and wind. Yes, it does look a bit like an Olympus, doesn't it? That design has survived six wet weeks in the French Pyrenees - with us in comfort. Some interesting discoveries were made during our snow trips. The gap between the inner and outer tents needs to be about 70 mm to avoid contact in bad weather: in places the gap was as close as 50 mm in this unit. The two could contact and freeze together as the evening falls! However, the orange material turned out to get very stiff in the cold weather: something we had not experienced in the Pyrenees. It was the thick PU coating which was the problem I think. The silnylon fabrics did not show the same problem in the snow. The current version uses 4 poles instead of three, and weighs about 1.6 kg with poles. Internal space is large!
In America the fanatics are using a "tarp" made of silicone-coated nylon and a groundsheet of the same. This combination can be slightly lighter than my tents, but has no insect proofing and no side walls on the ground sheet. That's fine for their conditions, but not so good for ours. In fact, for some of their areas they claim you don't need a tent: it never rains for 6 months of the year. Ha! We get frequent wind and heavy rain, at least around Sydney: I want that tub groundsheet!
Pegs have been covered fairly well under Shelters, but a few extra comments should be made here. In general most commercial pegs are an overkill unless you are going to camp on the summit of Kosci in mid-winter (some do). The only times I have ever been concerned about a tent peg was in the snow with warm wind and rain, and nothing was working very well then. Even the skis were rattling around in their holes.
The weights of various pegs were given in the Shelters section. I emphasise that I have tried all of these myself, and all worked. So it seems reasonable to go for the lightest you can find. In summer I often carry a mix of tubular pegs and titanium ones; in winter I carry the 'light snow pegs' plus four square dead-man anchors. The latter are for the critical ends of the tent.
It would be nice to find some really hard aluminium alloy sheet only 0.6 mm thick, to make some angles out of. It's very hard to buy this in Australia. I looked at buying some 0.4 mm titanium sheet, but so far the price is way beyond what I want to pay.
There seems to be a push for everyone to have a DryLoft (or equivalent) 4-season (850gm down) bag for summer trips lasting a couple of days in the bush. They cost more, they weigh more (1800+ g), and often you end up sleeping right out of the bag because you are too hot. Such a bag is gross overkill for summer trips. In addition, they do present a worse problem in very cold weather.
For a few years we were using very light Mont Nitro bags with success. They weigh 585 g with 150 g of down. The weight could be further reduced if the zip across the bottom was eliminated and the side zip reduced to 3/4 length. The weight could be significantly reduced if a really lighweigth down-proof fabric was used, but I imagine that might raise the price a little. [Anyhow, these models seem to have gone off the market in 2004.] You might ask how on earth we could stay warm in such a light bag? The answer is quite well, thank you. To be sure, there is much less down, but that down gets to fluff up in the chambers much better than heavier bags where the down stays slightly squashed. It may be that the bag will lose some of its warmth after 5 or 6 years: we'll see. In the meantime, I have made my own bags, as explained below.
These Nitro bags look as though they are sewn through, but they aren't quite: they have a very small wall between the inner and outer surfaces. You have to look very carefully to see how they did it. Granted, the wall is extremely small, bit it helps a lot. They do have zips the full length of one side and across the end, which means more heat loss and more weight, but the manufacturer is/was willing to change that to a half zip on the side to order. My wife still uses the silk liner, both for warmth and to protect the bags from sweat. (They are lighter than the cotton ones.) The liners can be draped over your head to keep some of your warm breath inside: it helps too on very cold nights. I have since made silk pyjamas for myself, going from a hood to my toes. They weigh slightly less, and give me much more room to wriggle around. Lots of other tricks for keeping warm are given at the end of the Sleeping bag section.
The Macpac Snowflake and Firefly look interesting, but I have never tried them. The Snowflake looks as though it might work well upside down, but the Firefly has no hood. Information about other similar bags would be appreciated.
How good are such bags? Well, we have used the Nitros down to 0C (frost on the ground) in the Blue Mts and the Snowy Mts, in our ultra-lightweight summer tent with all its ventilation. At 0C I admit we did wear our thermal tops to bed and we (my wife and I) did snuggle up together. But we were fine, provided we had the hoods over our heads so we didn't rob our feet of warm blood. Keeping your head warm is of course a major factor in staying warm all over.
More recently I made some sleeping bags myself, as detailed in the Sleeping Bag page of the MyDesigns section. I used Pertex Microlight to make a shell weighing 250 g. I had One Planet in Melbourne put 300 g of 800 loft superdown into this. These new ones have been down to about -5 C with thermals and snuggling - yes, they have been tested in the snow! These things are possible, and some specialist American bag manufacturers are starting to go down this path as well. There are a couiple of superb European bag manufacturers as well, but they aren't cheap. By the way, One Planet are willing to stuff home-made shells or modify the fill weights on their bags. They have a schedule of costs all worked out.
Some technical comments on sleeping warm are in order here. If you are sleeping on a foam mat or a Thermarest style mat, your bottom surface won't be cold. Those mats are warm, even in the snow. So you have only three sides to lose heat from. Howewver, if you are using a 3/4 length mat, realise that the ends of your feet are going to hang off the end of the mat, and get very cold where they touch the ground (or snow). I use a thin foam mat at the foot of the air mats - very light, but utterly essential under cold conditions.
A factor few seem to realise is that trying to be very tough and sleep on the cold ground can be very dangerous. You see, your body sweats, or loses water vapour, during the night. What happens to that water vapour when it hits the cold groundsheet? It condenses, and get absorbed into your sleeping bag. So after a couple of nights, you have this damp sleeping bag, and spend the night shivering. But you never see the water. So an insulator under the foot of your bag is essential under almost all conditions.
Lying there in your sleeping bag, you are losing heat from both sides and the top. You can reduce this heat loss at no weight cost if you are smart. When you snuggle up to someone else you have only two sides to lose heat from, so you are going to lose only about 2/3 of the heat - roughly. Pick your walking partner(s) accordingly. As a side note here, when four mountaineers pile into a two man tent high in the mountains because the weather has gone bad, they call the sleeping arrangment a 'puppy pile'. Very descriptive, and quite warm.
There are bags which only have down in the upper or Top section. The bottom is a sleeve into which you put your sleeping mat. Well, the theory is fine, but I question the exact concept. If you do this you might cut out the weight of the down on the bottom side (keeping the hood), but you are still stuck with the full weight of the cloth for the bottom side. I guess you might save some weight by eliminating the baffles in the bottom, but you may incur extra weight in making the bottom part wide enough to accomodate a Thermarest. Then, when you sit up in the middle of the night for a drink, you will get a very cold back. This exact design really only saves the cost of half of the down.
An interesting variation on the 'down only on top' idea takes up from the doonas many of us use at home these days. These do not have an underside at all, do they? So many years ago a few brave souls tried down quilts over a pad or a Therm-a-Rest. In fact it does work very well, but the quilt needs to be a bit wider than a mummy sleeping bag, and a silk liner or full-length silk pyjamas with hood does help. I have tried using my UL sleeping bag spread over the top of me but without the zip done up. This made a wide quilt which worked excellently in the Pyrenees, and I still had a zippable sleeping bag. This idea gets a litle better if you use a wider two-person quilt and have your partner share it with you. Now that is just like home! Enlarging on this, on one trip where we expected sub-zero conditions overnight, I took our UL sleeping bags plus a single light down quilt. My wife and I each slept in our UL sleeping bags, but we had the extra quilt over the two of us. That way we shared a lot of warmth, and we happy down to -5 C or worse.
While I know of only a few light-weight sleeping bags commercially available here in Australia (Mont Nitro 150/585 gm, Mont Hotwire 250/685 gm, Macpac Snowflake 150/550 gm, Macpac Firefly 150/550 gm, fill/total), a recent review in the American magazine Backpacking listed no less than eleven (11) light-weight bags. Some were warmer than others, some had down only on top, some had hoods while others didn't, and so on, but many were rated to 0C. That's a very competitive market over there: I have no reason to believe their quality should be worse than ours. However, their claims for working temperature should be treated with great care: a European test showed some of the manufacturers do exaggerate a bit (up to 14 degrees!).
We could reduce the weight even further by using a light foam mat rather than the Thermarest. We could then cut the foam mat down in size ... Fanatics in America do this, but I think they are sleeping on several inches of soft insulating pine needles anyhow. I think we all need a good sleep if we are going to enjoy the trips, and that's where I draw the line. If you are under 25 and macho this may not apply. There are some interesting new UL designs coming out of America, but so far I have not been able to test them.
I don't think we need to belabour this one. Look at the weights involved, and remember that the materials (Goretex/PacLite, PU-proofed nylon and silnylon) are essentially waterproof. How they perform when you are wearing them, or how wet you get inside them, depends more on weather conditions outside than the brand of material. If you are in any doubt, remember that some people are wearing such lightweight gear and are quite happy. For that matter, remember there was a time when we didn't have either material, and yet people went walking safely and happily. The black NZ Eidex oiled japara jacket was the height of fashion at one stage! I have tried using an ordinary light nylon windshirt without a parka in light rain: I got damp, but little worse than with a parka on. It works better with a thermal layer on underneath. In heavy rain I got wet, and cold.
You might also like to check the comments in the Backpacker article mentioned above and my comments in the Parka section about what they are wearing in France these days: ponchos. Hardly suitable for a howling storm in the middle of the snow, but very light and very convenient under more reasonable conditions. By leaving the poncho attached to the pack you can push it off you or pull it back over you while you are walking. The versatility of this approach is fantastic: I can regulate how hot I get as I walk.
Are overtrousers justified at all? Well, certainly not for a summer trip in the lowlands. I would include them for the Alpine regions in any season as I think you are pushing your luck on any trip in the Alps if you go without full gear. We went from hot weather and a clear blue sky to a heavy hailstorm in 2 hours on one trip there.
Not shown in the gear list is a new development in fabric which could turn some of this parka discussion upside down. The silicone-impregnated fabrics used on my new tents are like very like the normal tent or parka materials, but another silicone-impreganted fabric made by Nextec and called Epic is a bit different. The fibres in the Epic fabrics are covered in silicone, but the fabric itself breathes like other woven fabrics: there are holes between the threads. Despite these holes, the fabric is quite water repellent, albeit not truly 'waterproof'. You can use this material in very different ways.
I had a theory that with a shirt made of Epic I would rarely need a parka at all. I thought the fabric simply would not get 'wet', and it would make the concept of a 'breathable shell' become real. However, under hot conditions it did not work: my sweat killed the silicone surface and the fabric got wet. Nextec confirmed that this was to be expected, and that any soap of detergent left on the fabric would do the same. This was tried using a cotton Epic: the scrub and my pack also abraded the cotton fibres so the water got into the fibres as well.
I made a soft shell parka out of very light synthetic Epic fabric for use in the snow. I even managed to seal the seams: a difficult task with silicon fabrics. It was wonderfully light and performed very well in the snow and wind, although when we got 36 hours of rain I resorted to a PU-proofed parka. I am not sure why I bothered: I still got wet inside the parka: up the sleeves, down the front, and through the zip. The best solution was an extra layer of warm clothing under the Epic shell during the storm: this kept me warm enough that the Epic fabric was able to function properly. That said, Epic is not such a good choice for tents in the rain: it wets out eventualy and leaks.
The same argument applies for your warmth layer. You simply don't need a Polartech 300 jacket in the summer. Sometimes we take a very light top, equivalent to about Polartech 100, if it might get cool. We do always take our thermal tops, for safety if nothing else. Since we rarely wear any warmth layer while walking, just a light windshirt, our thermal underwear stays dry for the evening. If the weather is foul (it happens...) we get into the tent, change into dry thermal underwear, and are warm enough. There was one time in mid-summer when we had a brief hailstorm one evening: we were glad that we had some warm clothing that evening! My wife gets into her sleeping bag if necessary, while I sit over the stove cooking dinner. The thing is, we take enough clothing, not an excess.
However, I have to confess I take a medium duvet into the Alps in mid-winter time, and have used it. It is lighter than a Polartech 300 jacket, but you shouldn't wear it under a pack: that can damage the down. There are limits. So I also take a fleece top of about 200 weight. This can be worn under a pack. For spring skiing and autumn trips I might take just the 200 top and leave the duvet behind.
Enough has been said on this issue in the Footwear section of this FAQ. Just remember that many very experienced walkers do wear UL footwear. And the extreme adventure racers wear the very lightest footwear. I have even worn KT-26s in the snow, although I have to admit this was more by accident than design. But with good thick socks I was quite happy. In America some walkers wear sports sandels, even on the long distance trails. I am not sure whether they use them off-trail though.
In the interests of extreme light weight I use a Snow Peak titanium gas burner which weighs only 90 g. Sadly, it is rather dear. However, gas stoves weighing below 100g can be bought for relatively little money. When you work out the total weight of gas plus cartridge vs the total weight of stove plus liquid fuel plus tank plus fuel bottle plus priming material, the total weight of gas cooking turns out to be much lighter than with a liquid fuel stove. See the discussions in the Stove and Fuel Efficiency sections for more on this. This comparison comes as a surprise to many. A gas stove does mean you miss out on those wonderful displays of machismo as you fire up your roaring flame thrower (if the jet hasn't blocked), but quick cups of tea & coffee and a reliable dinner makes up for that. I once boiled the pot over on a kero stove in the snow, and could not get the jet clean again. It brought that snow trip to an abrupt end!
We used to take two heavy stainless steel cooking pots with heavy lids and sometimes a small frypan as well. Then we graduated to one very light stainless pot (Rocket brand, from Thailand) and a very light sheet aluminium lid, plus an aluminium Trangia or GSI kettle. The old pots were of a heavy gauge stainless steel and had flat bottoms with ridges. They were a pain to clean. Our light SS pot has a very rounded bottom and is very easy to clean: the curve fits the spoon. I have heard good reports of the Evernew titanium pot - but it is a bit expensive. More recently I have been using some anodised aluminium pots from GSI with a good Teflon lining: the 1 L ones are lighter than the SS pot, and the bottom spreads the heat out better. Along with this change we eliminated all frying and all fats, and chose to use mainly freeze-dried foods for dinner (plus rice or pasta). This means that washing up involves little more than a quick rinse of the pot and our plates. We went for some time without a kettle (taking just the pot), but it made cooking dinner for two people on long trips rather complex, and eventually we decided the extra weight of a kettle was justified. It meant we could have a broader range of dinners, and that tipped the scales. What about all the other cooking gear you can buy in walking shops? You guessed it: your wallet, your back. We eat well - see below under food for more comments.
If you want to go even further than this you can have just something to boil water in, and use the alfoil packets the freeze-dry comes in as bowls. However, while this might be just the thing for a three-day blitz, it gets tiring over a longer trip. We are doing this for fun, after all. And cleaning out those alfoil packets to take home is seriously messy. The ultimate extreme is where you boil the water in a brown paper bag. Yes, it is possible, and I have done it. However ...
I had this wonderful first aid kit. I could treat just about any sickness or injury you could think of. Open heart surgery would have been almost possible (not so sure about the survival rate). There were only three problems: I never used it, the drugs were out of date, and it weighed a lot. These days we carry some bandaids, a little burn cream, some Panadol, some non-woven surgical tape (wonderful stuff), a sealed bottle of iodine tablets for emergency water purification, a sealed scalpel blade and some safety pins. For larger emergencies there is always the spare clean handkerchief in the pack. In many years of walking we have never needed anything more.
You might be wondering whether this is so much macho or bravado. Not really. How often do you need a first aid kit at home? Not very often, I'm sure. How often should you need one in the bush? If you have any brains, you will go to some lengths to avoid injury rather than count on repairing it. Actually, what really matters is whether you have a fair understanding of 'first aid'. If you do, you can handle minor injuries with the list I gave and a bit of 'first aid'. Anything worse is going to need assistance from the real world: you will need 'second aid'. You can't handle a broken leg in the bush by applying a splint.
Equally, I had this wonderful emergency/repair kit. You can guess the rest. I still carry a repair kit, but now it is very small. It holds some adhesive nylon cloth (Coghlans), bits of ordinary fabric of pack and tent weights, some light nylon cord, a few needles, pins and some thread (light, heavy and very heavy), a spare butane lighter, the stub of a pencil, and a miniature box-cutter knife. In addition I have a very small spanner made of sheet metal for the stove and a couple of spare O-rings for it too. I still haven't needed all of it, although repairing my pack straps and the tent-poles in the Pyrenees used a fair bit.
PET bottles of course, and wine skins from chateau cardboard. If you don't believe either is strong enough, just try them for a while. Both are made to fairly severe food and safety standards. Ours last us for years, and they are FREE!
An extended review which I wrote of PET bottles as water bottles is to be found at the BackpackGearTest web site. In it I mention a series of drop tests I did from considerable height onto sand, dirt and even rock. The bottles passed all these tests without leaking. I used four of these bottles continuously in the Pyrenees for eight weeks walking: no leaks.
An extended review of my wine skin bladder system is also to be found at the BackpackGearTest web site.
You do get periodic scares about the safety of PET bottles for reuse as water bottles, but these can be ignored. Most of them are based on a thoroughly discredited and unrefereed thesis from America - rather full of factual errors. (The University Department concerned is probably rather ashamed of letting this one through now.) PET passes the appropriate FDA regulations in America. The idea that a PET bottle is safe to hold Coke (carbonic acid, phosphoric acid, sugar, etc) for an extended period on the supermarket shelf, but not safe to hold plain water for a few days, has to be a giggle. If you want to read up on this, search Google for 'PET and DEHA' or 'PET and DEHP', or go to the Snopes Urban Myths web site.
However, while the conventional rocket bottle works very well and lasts for years with only moderate care, the same cannot be said for the new square PET milk bottle introduced in Sydney in 2003. These have a lighter body, a weaker base, and a light multi-start-thread cap. I repeated the drop test (see the review mentioned above) on a milk bottle, and this resulted in the cap popping off and water going everywhere. The thread and cap on the milk bottle are just not strong enough for rough handling. The reason is obvious: milk bottles do not have to withstand a high internal pressure to meet their intended function; rocket bottles do.
We have two rules about our food: we eat well, and we don't carry any wet food. The first rule means that the question "what's for tea?", which usually surfaces about 3pm as we are walking, has very encouraging overtones. We know we are going to enjoy it.
The second means we carry foods such as muesli, biscuits, two-minute noodles, freeze-dry meals, rice and pasta, but not things like tins or packets of wet sauces. OK, we make a few compromises: we do carry some jam and honey, and we have been known to carry some very rich fruit cake for desert - had with cocoa. But the end result is that we are carrying 650 - 700 g of dry food per person per day. This is sufficient for distances up to about 30 km per day. For shorter summer trips this can go down to just over 600 gm/day. For longer trips and winter ones my appetite does start to go up a bit. Of course you have to add water, but you don't have to carry six days water from the start!
Our menu looks like this, where the figures are grams for one person for one day. They aren't always exact, but they are fairly close. The ranges show the difference between a very hungry person and a reasonable appetite (or between me and my wife). The weights go up slightly for winter ski touring, for some strange reason.
|muesli||70-130||plain biscuits||60-85||2-min noodle soup||42|
|milk powder||30||sweet biscuits||50||freeze-dried meal||40|
|muesli bar||35||freeze-dried vegies||25|
|Morning Tea||scroggin||40||rice, pasta or deb||60|
|coffee or tea bags||10||jam||25||dried tomato||10|
|honey||15||salt, spices, curry||6|
|vegemite||4||cocoa & milo mix||30|
Some people have complained that the freeze-dried meals are expensive. A full-blown luxury two-man pack costs about $10 - 12. Is this dear? Compare it with the cost of two Big Mac meals: there is little difference. OK, the rice costs extra: wow. This food has to support you for the next day's walking: is it that dear? How much did you spend on car fuel to get to the start of the walk, and how much did you spend on your gear? The complaints of some people about the cost of bushwalking food makes me think they have never done the week's food shopping for home.
Note that this includes tea and coffee, plus cocoa. The tea and coffee is morning tea, usually had with some of the lunch biscuits. After all, we are there for enjoyment, aren't we? A problem at this stage is brewing the coffee. I did use coffee bags, but they are billed as containing both ground coffee and 'soluble coffee', which I since discovered means 'instant coffee'. I felt cheated. I then thought an ultra-lightweight coffee filter would be nice, and some nice people (they bought one of my ultralightweight tents) sent me a Harris one, as shown to the right. OK, it weighs 99 grams, but have you seen the weight of those little cast aluminium coffee makers? You have to make some compromises, after all. I used this through the Pyrenees in 2004, and it seemed to go well. The only problem was cleaning out the coffee grounds. They sort of got spread around our meal sites I'm afraid. Or you can use a coarse grind, let the grounds settle, and not drink the last bit. I did this in France in 2002, and the grounds did settle enough (mostly). Either way, the coffee (and tea) went well with the French bread and Brie. Eat your heart out!
If you look closely at the dinner foods you will see that they look as though they will cook easily. That is correct. Most of them require boiling water and a 5-10 minute wait; they do not require 20 minutes cooking or a cast iron cooking pot. This saves significantly on fuel, but at no cost in satisfaction. We use freeze-dried vegetables which require very little cooking, and "dutch-oven" the meal as well.
I am not sure whether this would work as well with the home-dried meals many people make, but I do know it does not work very well with the sun-dried vegetables available from several places. They have a wrinkly skin which is made of dried proteins which have migrated to the surface from inside the lump, and this skin makes the lump waterproof. It can take over 20 minutes cooking to rehydrate these things properly, and a pressure cooker is really needed for the best results. If you eat them before they have rehydrated they pass through your stomach into your bowels, rehydrate there, ferment, and you get that 'dehi' smell at night in the tent.
Some people have sneered at the 'Cup of Soup' or '2-Minute Noodles'. I think they are wrong. First of all, they give you a very quick energy and morale boost almost as soon as you have got the stove going. Second, they contain some carbohydrate (good) and some salt and other electrolytes - also good. For some reason they often seem to deal better with a thirst than a huge quantity of cold water. There are two problems with these soups: they definitely flavour your tea and coffee if you use your tea cup for them, and the foil packets themselves are not ultra-lightweight. Our solution is to take very light soup bowls as well, and to use them for mixing and other food preparation. But all in all, these soups work well.
Powdered milk is as light as it can get, but some walkers have trouble mixing it with water. See under Food for more information on how to fix this.
Not listed above are several very good foods such as powdered egg, custard powder, dried apricots and Army biscuits. We have used them all, and can recommend most of them. Not detailed either are all the herbs and spices: very light and very good. I'm sure there are lots of other ideas I have missed: if you come across some really good ones, let me know?
Serious bushwalking is a sport where every individual has to be responsible for his or her own safety. I know: this puts school groups and so on into another category. I stand by my statement. So you need to have some thought for what can go wrong, and how you are going to handle it.
When you go UL you leave some (unnecessary) gear behind and take gear which is probably less durable than older heavier gear. Some claim this means you have less reserves or resources to call on in an emergency. On the other hand, going UL means you are carrying less weight and travelling more easily and more quickly. Is the total more or less safe? When done by someone with a bit of experience, I think it is the latter, but I will not recommend it to novices - nor will I or any other contributor accept any responsibility for what any one else does.
Ultimately, I don't think whether you go UL or not has much to do with safety. Safety is in the mind: you must look after yourself.
Unfortunately, there are no really good sources in Australia yet for ultra-lightweight gear (yet). You have to shop around and do some research. Maybe we can list some sources later on in this section; maybe we can persuade manufacturers to give it a go. Or you can have a look at MyDesigns, which you can copy or get from me. However, in America there is strong support for the concept, with comments at a recent major Outdoors Trade Show (Utah, USA) that UL gear is the only growth segment of the market today.
The following list of references of use to UL walkers was cribbed off someone else's web site. If I can remember who it was I will add an acknowledgement. The comments come from the original source, only those items in [ ] brackets are my additions. Note that I have not checked these URLs. Yes, there do seem to be the usual horde of competing "definitive" sites.
On some of these sites you will see references to Ray Jardine and the "Ray Way". Jardine wrote what some consider to be the definitive book on UL hiking, but others have gone on record as saying that more than half the book is really off the planet. Ray does not believe in filtering or treating water for instance.
www.BackpackGearTest.org : BGT is an international volunteer group which tests gear and publishes reviews by individual users. These are candid opinions, not 'advertorials'. There is some emphasis on ultra-lightweight gear. I have contributed a number of reviews to this site and I am currently one of the Editors for the organisation. You can join and test gear too: it's free.
www.backcountry.net : National Scenic Trails Mailing Lists. Lots of information of a general nature, also related to specific trails (PCT, AT, etc.) [American: limited use in Australia.]
www.onelist.com/subscribe.cgi/BackpackingLight : BackpackingLight List. Large volume of posts, people interested in ultralight packing.
www.thru-hiker.com: a web site devoted to long distance 'thru-hikers' and their gear. Lots of useful information about UL gear.
Backpackinglight.com : A commercial magazine, with equipment reviews, feature articles, how-to articles relating to lightweight backpacking,and a very active Forum with many relevant channels. You have to subscribe as most of the contents is 'subscriber-only', but the cost is quite small (about US$25). I have written many review and MYOG articles for them, and I am their Senior Editor for Technology.
Pacific Crest Trail Association
www.aldhawest.org American Long Distance Hiking Association (West)
http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Rapids/8812/ : Journals of people hiking the John Muir Trail.
http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/6736/index.html : Mike’s Homepage. Information on lightweight backpacking.
http://www.monmouth.com/~johno/index.html : John O'Mahoney's Homepage.
http://www.monmouth.com/~mconnick/ : Michael Connick's Homepage.
http://biofilm.eps.montana.edu/~backpacking/ : Ryan Jordan's Homepage.
www.pcthiker.com/ : Site for Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Many features, including Pepsi-can stove instructions and hiker journals.
http://www.adventurealan.com/ : Adventure Alan's website.
http://onestep4me.tripod.com : Onestep's Ultralight Backpacking Resource… section hiking the AT with a "10 lb. pack".
http://friends.backcountry.net/rogers : Hobbit's Hiking Pages.
http://www.msu.edu/~benne129/ : Chronicle of James Bennett's attempt to set a record on the PCT.
http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Drive/4343/backpackingweights : Weights of some backpacking gear.
http://www.hikermaps.com : Incredible maps of the PCT.
http://mywebpages.comcast.net/djohnston/index.html : Don "Photon" Johnson's home page, with instructions for the famous Photon Stove. [Metho]
© Roger Caffin 1/3/2002