Choosing a Backpacking sleeping bag: How much is enough?

Lightweight backpacking for beginnersLucky you. If you’re just starting into backpacking, you will find a large number of lightweight bags (less than 3 pounds) that will keep you warm in some very cold conditions and pack down small, taking up little space in your pack. Not so, just a few years ago.

In 1997 I purchased a huge extra-wide down bag with a temperature rating of 10 degrees (3 pounds, 4 ounces). It was designed to keep you warm down to that temperature.

A local backpacking store recommended this jumbo bag based on desire to return to the Eastern Sierra where during car camps I experienced t-shirt weather during the day and temperatures of 20’s at night.

In reality, most of my backpacking have not been under such conditions and the Western Mountaineering Sequoia Super Microfiber bag at $480 was overkill.

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Choosing a Backpacking shelter: tent, bivy, or tarp?

Lightweight backpacking for beginnersThe ultralight philosophy certainly comes into play in choosing a shelter. Will it be a tent (3 pounds), bivy sack (2 pounds) or tarp (1 pound)? Perhaps a hammock (1 pound, 4 ounces) or a hybrid tarp/tent (1 pound, 12) from GoLite.

The Tarp
An ultralight backpacker will likely choose one of a growing number of tarps available on the market. Essentially, they are large pieces of high tech cloth made water-proof, that when properly staked and pitched with hiking poles or sticks provide good protection from wind and rain.

Pros: Lightweight and roomy.

Cons: No bug protection. You may need to carry one or two hiking poles to pitch it, adding weight to your load. Even when you’re in the wilderness, sticks may not be readily available, especially if you’re above the tree line.

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Choosing a lightweight backpack

Lightweight backpacking for beginnersOutfitting yourself for backpacking can feel like an overwhelming task. There are so many choices. Too many, I think. So how do you start?

Using one of two criteria, “light” (under three pounds) or “ultralight” (1 pound or less), you can reduce the number of choices by 80-90 per cent. Backpacker Magazine, either the hard copy or the online edition, is a good place to find the lists of features and weights  of a large number of packs.

Ignore the guides, like those in Backpacker Magazine, that categorize packs into daypacks, weekend packs, and weeklong packs.  Ultralight and light backpackers can carry everything they need for a week or more in a so-called “weekend” pack, typically about 2000-2500cc's.

Next, use the Web to find local outdoor stores that carry the packs you have selected to check out. Add some weight (stores usually have weighted bags for stuffing into packs) to get a feel for the pack and the fit.

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Lightweight backpacking for beginners

Lightweight backpacking for beginnersThis is the first in a series of posts to put the beginner on the road to becoming an ultralight or lightweight backpacker.

The experienced backpacker who wants to abandon their big, heavy pack and embrace the hike-light philosophy might also benefit.

I'll share my mistakes and experience to help you achieve the goal of being as light as possible on the trail to maximize your enjoyment. If the pack is too heavy, the pack becomes the one — the only one you can think about. By contrast, if you are unburdened by heavy gear, then you become one with the pack, gliding effortless through the wilderness, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells with no thought of the weight on your back.

 In this series, I'll discuss how to choose your gear and where to find it, along with tips for narrowing the choices.

I will try to be honest about what things weigh and point out important nuances in pack weight management that some ultralighters tend to gloss over. For example, hiking poles can be beneficial in many ways, but I don't particularly care for them and don't carry poles. If you buy a tarp shelter, you'll probably need one or more hiking poles to support the roof, which when added to the tarp weight, gives you a different shelter weight than if you only count the weight of the tarp. Really, when you're counting ounces and fractions of an ounce, you'll need to know all of the tricks of the trade, as they say.

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Backpacking Dental Hygiene: the Ultra Light Approach

I admit that when I’m on a two to three-day backpack I sometimes skip flossing and occasionally, brushing. Call it lazy. Or think of it as a break from the daily routine.

At the same time, I think personal hygiene can be just what you need to feel refreshed after a day of sweat, grime and dust on the trail. Washing up. Brushing and flossing. Putting on clean nightclothes before crawling into your sleeping bag. All add to your trail quality of life.

As an ultralight backpacker, you don’t need to skimp on these niceties. That goes for dental hygiene as well.

I’ve searched far and wide for lightweight alternatives to traditional products and family size containers. The drugstore or your dentist are good sources of such items. Here are some ideas:

  • Really light, really easy: use your finger as a toothbrush. Bring a few lengths of floss in a tiny container, plastic bag or plastic wrap.
  • The disposable foam sucker: literally pink foam rubber on a sucker stick with mint flavoring. Hospitals supply them as a mouth freshener. They can’t weigh more than a fraction of an ounce.
  • Travel size Glide floss: a small metal container of floss the size of a quarter and 1/8th-inch thick.
  • One-use Reach Easy Slide: a package with one strand of floss. A few of these will last several seasons.
  • Floss bow Dental Pick and the Pick-A-Dent: alternative to floss.
  • Cool Mint Listerine gel: flat tubes hold a weeks worth of toothpaste.

Dental care kit for the lightweight backpacker

Samples are a wonderful source of ultralight supplies from dental hygiene to condiments such as sugar, cream, salt, pepper, mayo, mustard, soy sauce and more.

Be creative. Be light. Be one with your pack. Leave no trace.

Backpacking kitchen: A half-ounce of convenience

For those of us who eat hot food during our backpacks, some pot and utensil clean up is required.

The ultralight backpacker uses a finger and sand, gravel or a piece of crumpled aluminum foil for scrubbing. Works okay but can be messy, requiring a lot of water to clean the mud and silt out of the pot.

Supplies for the backcountry kitchenScotch-Brite & Campsuds

A re-usable and lightweight alternative is a two-inch sponge with scratch pad on backside. That and a tiny bottle with Campsuds in a plastic snack bag make a nice kitchen clean-up set. The total weight is barely one-half ounce.

Scotch-Brite soap pads are available at most supermarkets and big drugstores. They come in a package of three pads, which are 1.8 x 3 x 0.3 inches. I recommend you use a pair of scissors to cut a piece two-fingers wide (so you can hold onto it with your thumb and two forefingers). Or simply cut one pad in half. The pads have soap in them, but quickly get washed out, so I always carry some Campsuds. Campsuds aren’t necessary. However, it is difficult to clean out olive oil and such without soap.

Campsuds are available online, at REI and most local outdoor stores with backpacking / camping supplies. The refillable plastic bottles also are widely available, but most drugstores (try cosmetics counters) carry a variety. Re-sealable snack-size bags are widely available, too.

Leave No Trace
Clean your pots away from the lake, river or pond. Campsuds may be safe for the environment, but why add one more chemical to the wilderness?

Lightweight backpacking philosophy

My lightweight backpacking philosophy

I believe that either the “pack is the one” – the weight is all you can think about — or you’re “one with the pack,” gliding unburdened through the wilderness enjoying the sights, sounds and smells.

My quest to join the ranks of the backpacker started in 1997 with months of research, talking to dozens of so-called experts at REI and local independent outdoor stores. Ultimately, this expert advice led to all the wrong choices. The result: I was $1,500 lighter in the pocketbook and my pack was nearly 22 pounds before food, water and other basic gear. On my first six-mile test run on the hills of a local park, I carried 38 pounds for 3 miles, sat down exhausted, discouraged and sweating. I had serious thoughts about quitting. The strain got worse. By the end of my first summer on the trail, I was rich with sage advice from members of my hiking club and had added another seven pounds of goodies, such as a Thermarest chair, increasing my load to 45 pounds.

A Heavy Heart

You can say I had rocks in my head, but certainly it felt that way in my pack, a 7.5-pound, 5,800cc big-load monster Terraplane LTW by Dana Design stuffed with:

Gives me a heavy feeling just to write about it.

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Welcome to LightBackpacking.com

My name is Bruce Lewis. I'm a 58-year-old public relations consultant living on the rugged north coast of California, not far from the Lost Coast. I'm in my 10th year of backpacking and try to get in the wilderness at least five times each year from March to November. I have hiked in most of the major wilderness areas in California. 

Currently, I hike with two good friends: "Wild Bill", a 59-year-old retired physician/ surfer/abalone diver, and "The Duke" (his last name is Ellington), a 72-year-old jack-of-all-trades and medical miracle who takes no medications, who can bench press 150 pounds more than 10 times and move on his long legs and 6-foot-1 inch frame like a gazelle.  Wild Bill and I have a hard time keeping up.

I grew up in the big suburb city of Long Beach in Southern California where were we hung out on beaches and surfed. I never met anyone who backpacked.  The desire to backpack emerged from 10 years of summer car camps in the 1990's near Red's Meadow in the Eastern Sierra, meeting backpackers on their 212-mile trek along the John Muir Trail. My first backpack was just a few weeks shy of my 48th birthday, making me somewhat of a late backpack bloomer. Has my age colored my approach to backpacking? Sure. When you're young and powerful, a thing like weight barely fazes you. Age, however, makes you aware of your weaknesses and forces you to compensate. If anything, however, age has fueled my love of the go-light philosophy. 

Ultimately, LightBackpacking.com is about hiking lightly and safely and being one with the pack as you glide quietly and effortless through the wilderness enjoying the sights, sounds and smells, unburdened by such things as big packs and heavy boots.