A philosophy for hiking lighter

Ultralight hiking is a mix of enlightenment and consumerism. It is semi-philosophical, encouraging hikers to “carry less and travel farther”. Less weight on your back means more miles and more comfort. Through the power of round numbers and online bickering, the limit for “ultralight” has been set arbitrarily at 15 lbs of gear, prior to food and water, known as a base weight. This has been further revised down to 10 lbs, depending on who you ask.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of this base weight can turn into a shopping spree of replacing functional yet heavy gear with lighter items in order to reach that elusive threshold. This gear acquisition functions as a kind of stand-in for the fun of actual hiking or camping, since it’s done from your computer while sitting indoors.

My goal with this article is to lay out the most useful steps I found for reducing the weight of what you carry without getting into obsessive territory. These are my tips, in rough order of savings.

Weigh everything

First off, weigh everything that will go into your pack and log it. Lighterpack is a hugely popular site for building a library of camping gear and cataloguing it by weight and it’s also free. I know this sounds obsessive, but it is an indispensable way to see the “big picture” of everything you’re carrying. When replacing gear, it lets you easily see the potential impact to your back of trading up to something lighter.

Key tool: Lighterpack.com

Carry less water

When I realized that 16oz of water weighs (surprise!) one full pound, I started to question whether I couldn’t carry a bit less and gather it along the trail. That change in philosophy included buying a lightweight tubular Sawyer Squeeze water filter where I formerly relied on Iodophor iodine solution for all water treatment. This change allows me to carry 64 or 96 oz of water when I formerly carried around a gallon.

Key gear: Sawyer Squeeze water filter

Lose the boots

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that hiking boots are no longer the shoewear of choice on the Appalachian Trail. Nearly everyone going long-distance hiking now uses trail runners or hiking shoes, i.e. footwear with good tread and the weight of a running shoe. I suppose it was just following the crowd that made me never question boots before now, because I was definitely an early convert to ultralight running shoes back in highschool.

I bought a pair of Brooks Cascadia (1.6lb/pair) and dropped 2 lbs when compared to my old Timberland Pro Goretex-lined hikers (3.6lb/pair). The Cascadia have a solid tread and padded sole, though they rely on breathability to wick water rather than waterproof fabric. Even though I’m giving up the Goretex, there’s a good chance my feet will be similarly dry, since my heavy lined boots used to make me sweat.

Key gear: Trail running shoes

Lighten your pack

Given the amount of gear I used to carry, I loved my 80-liter Kelty Redcloud. Though once I weighed my gear, I realized I could save roughly 4 lbs by trading my trusty old Kelty (6.5 lbs) for a lighter backpack. I ended up choosing the ULA Circuit (2.5 lbs). The Circuit has a 65-liter capacity, which is more than enough for my slimmed-down gear profile.

The Circuit has a lighter belt and frame, though is functionally the same as the Kelty. There are many others like it. Lighter options exist without a hip belt or frame, similar to a large school backpack, but I like the weight distribution of a frame for food and water carries.

Key gear: Lighter backpack (sub-3lbs)

Switch to down

When I started on this quest to upgrade my gear, my number one wish for an upgrade was my sleeping bag. I had had my previous bag since my Scouting years and it was synthetic, of unclear warmth, and huge. Even as a kid I was jealous of the Scout Dads with their lofty down bags.

I traded up to a down sleeping bag, the lightest that I could find under $300, which at the time as the Marmot Hydrogen 30-degree bag. Many others that go ultralight end up with down quilts which are essenially zipperless sleeping bags that wrap around and attach to your pad. My Hydrogen is 800- or 850-fill down, which is a measure of loft. Higher is better and lighter per unit of warmth, the cheapest bags will use 650-fill while high-end ones will use 900 or 950.

My sleeping pad had been a Thermarest Ridgerest foam pad for as long as I have been camping. These pads are very light but also not very padded. For the sake of comfort, I traded up for a Thermarest self-inflating pad. It’s my one trade up in weight but also in comfort.

Key gear: Down sleeping bag

Pop a new tent

A tent is one of those nice items that can be split in half if you’re couples camping. For us that meant splitting up a Marmot tent weighing over 6lbs. At the point I was looking to replace the tent I was in full-on immersion into the r/Ultralight group and so decided I would try out the Durston X-Mid 2P sold on Drop.com. It offers a good balance of durability, weather protection, and space, all while coming in under $300.

The Durston tent weighs a hair over 2 lbs, for a savings of nearly 4 lbs, but there’s a catch: many long distance hiking tents are made to utilize hiking poles as the supports for the tent. I got mine from Fizan and they weigh in at 10 oz, which makes the tent package a bit closer to 3 lbs. These are just about the lightest poles that are still usable for hiking, though there is the option to buy a set of simple foldable tent poles, which would weigh 6-8 oz.

Key gear: Sub-3lb tent and trekking poles (if applicable)

Lighten your stove

As a former Scout, I grew up using Coleman stoves and lanterns. In fact, I still use them for car camping, I have the big green briefcase stove and the matching green lantern. For backpacking, I had the Coleman Peak One stove. This was all overkill for hiking.

Backpacking meals are mostly re-hydrating food, so what is needed is a simple way to boil water. Early in my upgrade process I purchased a butane-propane stove from Snow Peak which, even with its case, weighs only 4 oz. I paired it with the inexpensive Stanley Adventure cook set and nested it inside, using the locking lid to secure the stove inside the pot.

I’ve since learned that many hikers use an alcohol stove, wind screen, and titanium pot for even further weight savings, though the ease of my butane-propane canister and minimal weight savings means this upgrade will have to wait for another day.

Key gear: Isobutane canister or alcohol stove

Conclusion

In order to draw some comparisons between all this new gear, I made some rough estimates of cost, weight saved, and the price per pound saved:

Sleeping bag: ~2 lbs saved / $200 = $100/lb saved

Tent and poles: 4 lbs / $320 = $80/lb

Backpack: 4 lbs / $260 = $65/lb

Shoes: 2 lbs / $100 = $50/lb

Stove: ~1.1 lbs / $30 = $27/lb

Water: 2 lbs (32 oz) / $30 = $15/lb

Total: 15.1 lbs saved / $940

Among hikers there is often a lot of debate around the “Big 3” of tent, sleeping bag and pack and what to choose. Not surprisingly, in my exercise those were some of the biggest weight savings, though they were much less cost effective than upgrading my shoes, stove, and [carrying less] water.

Admittedly, I’m messing with the numbers a bit by assuming I would carry 32 oz less water if I used a filter on-trail, but this exercise is a good example in diminishing returns. Those smaller items requiring a change in approach saved more weight, per dollar, than fancy gear-focused purchases.

Classic camping with a Coleman briefcase stove (How-to)

We were planning a car camping trip over the July 4th and I had to get us a Coleman stove. That’s because few things cause as much pleasant nostalgia as using the same equipment we used as Boy Scouts: Eureka Timberline tents, Coleman lanterns, and Coleman stoves were our mainstays. As you may have noticed from the link, people love these things so much there are collectors’ groups, like there are for comics, coins or stamps.

Why and where to buy one

Yes, those green metal briefcases weren’t lightweight, and they definitely weren’t in the best shape after cooking pounds and pounds of ground beef, bacon, or whatever mess we had chosen for our meals, but they were rock-solid and simple enough for a bunch of 12-year-olds not to break or cause an explosion. They run on good ol’ Coleman fuel, aka white gas, i.e., unleaded gasoline without the automobile additives.

They’re large enough to prepare a real meal, unlike your typical backpacking stove. They also happen to be incredibly easy to buy or to service. Parts and fuel for the Coleman gas lantern fit the stove and vice-versa. It’s one big unbeatable gas-burning system. In essence, it’s America. Thanks, petroleum!

Millions have been sold since the Baby Boom era and they all use roughly the same interchangeable parts, so I went ahead and bought the first inexpensive used model on Craigslist that didn’t require me to venture out past the ends of the subway. For $35 I got what was billed as a working 425B stove, as well as a percolator coffeepot. You’ll find them on eBay or Craigslist for around $45-50 or you can save yourself the trouble and buy a new one for $125-150.

Being the nostalgic soul and a bit of a cheapskate, I had to get the used made-in-USA version. Turns out it’s a true antique, likely from the 1950s!

Routine maintenance

I realized fairly quickly that it needed some work, though through trial and error and a bit of research, here’s what I determined needed to be done:

  • Oil the fuel pump cup. It’s made of leather and gets dried out. As long as its not cracked it doesn’t need to repaired, only oiled. I used sewing machine oil, others use motor oil or even olive oil. The pump pops out of its casing once you pull out the ring that holds it in place, no tools needed.
  • Replace the fuel cap gasket. This is because the ancient rubber gasket had fused with the metal to the point where it was indistinguishable from the rest of the cap. Heat it by holding over your gas stove with pliers, then dip it in cold water. Use a screwdriver or other chisel-like implement to remove the gasket from the metal channel. I then took the cap to Home Depot and tested o-rings until I found the right one to fit in the channel.You can also save yourself some time and just buy a new fuel cap, Coleman part number 3000000454.
  • Clean the fuel tank. Leave denatured alcohol in it overnight. Then shake and dump the alcohol, then rinse again with a cup of fuel. This will get all the flecks of rust, corrosion or debris out of the tank. These impurities can clog your generator, which is the metal tube that delivers the gas to the burner. A small funnel would help in this case so everything doesn’t smell like gas. Transfer fuels outside if you can.
  • Make sure the burner rings of the stove are stacked in the following order: flat, corrugated, flat, corrugated, flat, corrugated, flat (see photo). All you need for this is a flat-head screwdriver. All the corrugated rings were stacked together when I received the stove, thus transforming the burner opening from a honeycomb to a closed tube from which fuel could not escape. I copied the arrangement on the second burner. Problem solved.

This site is a great reference if you have more questions or would like photos.

Getting started

Another mystery is how to light the darn thing. Here’s where one of those metal-tipped fire lighters comes in handy. Follow these rough steps (and read this):

  1. Fill the tank half-way with gas. Close the cap, though only enough to hold a tight seal.
    Twist the pump valve one to two turns to the left, pump 20-25 times. Close the pump valve.
    Flip the “up to light” switch to the “up” position, then open the valve on the generator so you hear a liquid or spitting sound, not just air exiting the tank. The generator controls the flow.
  2. Light the right burner. Wait around a minute for it to heat up and check that there is a blue flame before turning the “up to light” switch to the “down” position. This step heats the generator and burns out any impurities from the line.
  3. Give the burner a few more pumps (10-15) until it is chugging along with a strong blue flame, similar to what you’d expect from a kitchen stove. My first few minutes cooking were handicapped by not pressuring the tank enough.
  4. To light the second (left) burner, turn the key in the hole in the left side of the stove to the left and light the burner as you did on the right. The more the burner is opened, the stronger the flame. It is fed from the main generator so no adjustments should be needed other than possibly turning up the gas.

When in doubt, fiddle with the generator valve for more or less fuel, or pump the tank when the flame isn’t coming out fast enough.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, you can find nostalgic camping gear and service it yourself. It’s great for big meals and easy to fix in the field. The design looks the same as it did 65 years ago because you shouldn’t mess with perfection.